No, We Don’t Need Dumb Cities

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH and Betsy Gardner • SEPTEMBER 27, 2021

 

This article originally appeared in Governing Magazine.

We have long advocated, in this space and on our own platform, for better, faster and cheaper government, and have argued that technological modernization is a top driver of how we get there. That’s a central premise of the growing “smart cities” movement, and it's one that has excited the imaginations of mayors and other officials of local governments large and small.

But not everyone is so excited about the idea. While there have always been a few questions about the value of the smart city, several writers have taken that argument a step further. In a New York Times op-ed titled “I’m an Engineer, and I’m Not Buying Into ‘Smart Cities’,” for example, Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto writes that while “there will always be a place for new technology in our urban infrastructure … we may find that often, ‘dumb’ cities will do better than smart ones.” Tech solutions, Saxe argues, can be “a fun but unnecessarily complicated approach to solving challenges with more direct solutions.”

Arguments like Saxe’s are not without value, yet we think their usefulness lies in highlighting and guiding what issues local officials should keep in mind as they move toward better, faster and cheaper government. Rather than allow the smart city critics to torpedo the progress and improvements made by smart cities, we maintain that governments must thoughtfully and intentionally accelerate digital transformation on an array of fronts.

Lurking behind some of the naysayers’ apprehensions seems to be a concern about the role of the private sector generally, and especially as a driver of technological innovation in government. Shannon Mattern, a professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research, worries, for example, that smartness "requires contracting with commercial service providers and procuring their hardware and software and maintaining those technologies."


To which we answer, “Of course.” But how does a city that continues to rely on antiquated systems and procedures make the transformational progress that can dramatically improve governmental efficiency and citizen services? Cities have always contracted for a range of services, from highway construction to janitorial work. The argument for smart cities to engage with private players is straightforward, and the results are important. The issue is not whether governments should outsource their services but rather that they procure and partner for digital systems that will make existing services better and public workers more efficient and productive.

For example, a smart city uses intelligent infrastructure — sensors and other Internet of Things devices — to  build, maintain and safely use physical infrastructure. These smart processes help cities in so many areas, including how they handle trash, maintain bridges and buildings, and manage curb space, congestion, idling and parking payment. And as climate change causes more extreme weather and devastating natural disasters, intelligent infrastructure is saving lives. In coastal areas like those of Louisiana and Virginia, for example, sensors that monitor water levels alert residents to dangerous tides and flooding so they can prepare for storm events and evacuate if needed.

In effect, those opposed to outsourcing for these digital tools oppose helping public employees work smarter. Government workers, often frustrated by outdated tools and technology, welcome the opportunity to be data-informed, well-trained and better equipped to serve. Data focuses decision-making in almost every area of public service, including blight remediation, de-biased decision-making and budgeting.

Other critics worry about proprietary systems grabbing hold of smart cities. Here too, the diagnosis of the possible disease is correct but the proposed medicine, dumbness, aggravates the problem. Government’s all-too-common aversion to risk and its slow procurement cycles deprive residents of better services. Vendor lock-in does in fact happen, and too frequently. But a dumb-city path ensures that current vendors will continue, often with obsolete offerings, indefinitely. New contracts should be well devised with provisions for data ownership, exit ramps and requirements for technology refreshes that guard against proprietary lock-in.

Additionally, critics who reference Sidewalk Labs’ ambitious and now largely abandoned effort to develop a smart city enclave in Toronto as an example of why being dumb is better miss two points. First, the Sidewalk Toronto project represented a large and unique real estate partnership with the city. That project was quite different from any other North American effort, so it stands on its own. Second, the joint city-investor project did raise questions about data ownership and privacy. Those issues are germane, but the answer to them is not to halt progress but to carefully manage applicable policies going forward.

Jurisdictions embarking on large contracts and vendor relationships should secure expert advisers and in all cases establish transparent, community-informed policies. Once again, though, the choices are not binary — between no progress and data privacy, or progress and no privacy. The real choices are always how we can do things better to achieve progress and protection, while understanding the relevant policy issues and trade-offs.

Some of those arguing for less-smart cities also worry that technology will cause city officials to be less sensitive to people’s needs. While rooted in real concerns, this dichotomy is false as well. When used correctly, digital tools expose inequity, lift up the voices of those ignored by current systems and configure services to the needs of residents, especially those who struggle the most. In Washington, D.C., for example, data, new technology and community input led to significant redesigns in the district’s service requests and forms. Led by The Lab @ DC, the scientific and evidence-based team within the city administrator’s office, the D.C. government is identifying outdated systems and applications that actually impede communities of color and residents experiencing poverty from taking advantage of public support, services and programs.

Paper-based and manually processed governance has proven insufficient in terms of both efficiency and equity. We agree that digital reforms do need to be properly constructed, but success requires tools designed for the future, not the past. Concerns from the smart city critics should be speed bumps, not roadblocks, on the way to a more equitable, sustainable and smarter future.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is A New City O/S.

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About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.