To be a smarter city or a smart enough city? That is the question Ben Green raised in his book, The Smart Enough City – Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future. I find the ideas in his book quite interesting and would like to share here. The concept of smart city has gained a lot of attention and support in the past few years. Many scholars, urban planners, and engineers have considered a smart city as the ideal future of municipal governance. Green asked two questions fundamental to the pursuit of smart cities. The first question is whether or not technologies are able to achieve what they have promised. The second question is, regardless of whether or not the technologies are possible, whether the promised futures pictured by technologies are desirable. His answers to both these two questions are no. He stated that a smart city is ultimately an illusionary vision that is full of false promises. He gave an example of a smart intersection without traffic lights, where autonomous vehicles travel seamlessly through this collision-free and efficient intersection without the need to slow down or stop. He pointed out that we should think about what we chose to value and what we have ignored in this example. We always blame traffic congestion on insufficient street space rather than automobiles themselves – an inefficient form of transportation. A focus on optimization of traffic flows has led to city streets becoming hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. He argued that improving traffic flows – a technological problem – should not be the only priority for cities.
Green called the mindset that causes us to find smart cities appealing “tech goggles.” People who wear tech goggles view every social challenge as something to be overcome by technological advancement. He explained that tech goggles are grounded in two beliefs: first, that technology offers value-neutral, optimal, and objective solutions to social problems; and second, that technology is the key driver for social progress. He warned us about the danger of wearing tech goggles: perceiving the answer to every issue is to become “smart” – a design with an optimized algorithm powered by big data – all for the purpose of maximizing efficiency. In this context, Green proposed an alternative of a smart city: a “smart enough” city, where the opportunities for technology are integrated into a holistic vision of what a city really needs. He highlighted that, in a smart enough city, technology is never deployed for its own sake.
For those of us who are always optimistic about technological innovation, Green’s book provides a refreshing and provocative view. I agree with him that we should take off the tech goggles and pay more attention to the fundamental purpose to be served by technology instead of worshiping technology itself. However, I also see a potential problem in Green’s approach. While focusing on real people and real problems currently happening in a city is of great importance, it may tie our hands to proactively prepare for future changes.
The advance of technology moves much faster than social revolutions and public perceptions. Green put great emphasis on extensive civic engagement processes to ensure that a program carried out by a city government matches what its residents want. However, what residents want now may not be the same as what they want or need by the time that program is implemented. As for new technology, public opinions often times evolve as people become more familiar with it. Besides, public opinions are easily swayed by factors such as media coverage and political propaganda. Take the introduction of autonomous vehicles as an example. Pittsburgh has allowed autonomous vehicle road testing on public streets since 2016. According to a 2019 survey of cyclists and pedestrians in Pittsburgh, they actually feel safer sharing the road with autonomous vehicles than with human drivers; and comparing to the result of a 2017 survey, there is even a slight shift toward feeling less safer around human drivers . If Pittsburgh had realized in 2016 that autonomous vehicles were not what its residents had desired and had decided that autonomous vehicles were not able to solve any social problems at that moment, Pittsburgh would not have established its leadership in innovation and become home to many cutting-edge tech companies.
While Green is right that smart technologies cannot solve all problems, if some technological change is inevitable, delaying its disruption because of the public not being on board could lead to more problems in the future. I believe that anticipatory governance is good for a city in the long run. The earlier we accept that some transformation is inevitable, the better we will be able to prepare for the future. Just like everything, “being smart” has its pros and cons. What we can do is proactively manage the risks associated with smart technologies, e.g. deterioration of social injustice and inequity, and plan the introduction of smart technologies well, so as to minimize the cons and maximize the pros.
I believe that a city’s vision should be holistic not only in scope, as Green has proposed, but also in depth, meaning taking consideration of what tech disruptions might be in the future in addition to what urban residents currently need. Moreover, civic engagement should include not only soliciting public input but also educating residents about technological changes. Ultimately, how smart is “smart enough” is a decision that needs to be made by city governments.
1. Boerer, E. “Sharing the Road” with Autonomous Vehicles Survey Results 2019; 2019