Putting technology in its place in the ‘smart enough’ city

There’s a lot that technology can do to help improve municipal governance and urban life, but too many city leaders, dazzled by the promise of “smart cities,” think it’s the answer to all their problems.

That’s the premise of Ben Green’s new book, “The Smart Enough City.”

Green, a former city hall data scientist in New Haven, Conn., Memphis, Tenn., and Boston, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in applied math at Harvard University, argues that city leaders need to “put technology in its place.”

He doesn’t disagree that technology can help achieve social change, but he asserts that oftentimes it takes much more than tech. Leaders of what he calls “smart enough” cities know the difference between technology and innovation, he writes, and are more focused on finding ways to achieve their policy goals than using tech for the sake of it.

Bloomberg Cities spoke with Green to learn more about the dangers of what he calls “wearing tech goggles,” and how he thinks city leaders should view technology.

Bloomberg Cities: What are “tech goggles?”

Tech goggles are this lens on the world through which everything looks like a technology problem. So everything appears related to efficiency, to optimization, to connectivity, all the types of things that digital technology tends to prioritize and enhance today.

That’s a perspective that has long been dominant in our discourse. Go back to urban planners like Le Corbusier, who believed he could construct the perfectly optimized city. Or look at the automobile industry of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, which very much sold an image around the automobile as the path to a futuristic, utopian society.

Today, the term “smart city” is very much a concept that has been developed and marketed quite aggressively by technology companies.

Who’s wearing these goggles?

It’s certainly not only the private sector. Civic technologists and often academics in tech who are computer scientists or engineers often similarly approach problems in this way. And it’s very much in the media. Lots of journalists will hype up these technologies and take for granted the idea that the way to be a “smart city” and to move your city forward is to have more technology. There are also folks in city hall, including mayors, who are often very much on board with this.

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At the same time, I also found many folks in city halls who were fighting back against this idea. They understand how far away some tech solutions are from actually solving the types of problems they’re often confronted with. There are many folks I interviewed who are grappling with this and trying to find better approaches.

What are the consequences of wearing these goggles?

The number one issue is that it is blinding. It narrows one’s perspective from actually recognizing the full set of issues they’re facing and limits the types of questions they ask. So rather than starting out by thinking about the types of problems in a city and the various ways of addressing them, wearing tech goggles shrinks everything into a space that is limited to what technology can do to solve everything.

Take self-driving cars. If you’re wearing tech goggles, you think solely in terms of optimizing traffic flow, getting rid of congestion, and how we can move this car as quickly as possible from point A to B. But you’re not considering the broader context of other users of city streets, the people who are walking, cycling, or riding the bus. There are many reasons we wouldn’t want cars going as quickly as possible down city streets.

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If you’re wearing tech goggles, you’re ignoring other types of non-technological reforms, such as policy reforms, which often can be more valuable. And very often, that then leads to inequities and unjust outcomes. Because the types of issues that are most likely to be thrown out in that process of narrowing in on technology are often those that relate to marginalized groups.

So how should technology fit into the urban future?

There are certainly opportunities for technology, but we need to put it within a broader context. We need to ask first: What is our actual vision for the city? And what are the various ways we can promote that vision? Then we can think about how technology can enhance our strategy in that direction.

That’s really the emphasis of what I call in the book the “smart enough” city. It’s a much more holistic vision. It’s a place where technology is never deployed for its own sake.

Some might hear “smart enough” as a call for cities to downscale their ambitions. But you say in the book it’s about being more ambitious. How so?

Fundamentally, to do this is much more difficult — to go out, and talk to 500 people in your city, and say, “Here’s what we learned from those conversations and here are particular ways technology can overcome the issues raised.” That’s a much more complex and nuanced approach that avoids easy solutions. It’s a lot simpler to jump to a quick fix than to really dig into entrenched long-standing problems and work in a rigorous, thoughtful way to overcome them.

What’s an example of a city that’s doing it well?

Columbus, Ohio, provides a really nice contrast to the self-driving car tech-goggles thinking. They won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge” grant of $40 million. I was skeptical when I went to read their proposal — I expected it to talk about the ways self-driving cars could solve all their problems.

But they took a different approach, focused on the link between transportation and social mobility. They recognized there were neighborhoods where people were suffering from high rates of infant mortality and poor prenatal healthcare. In large part because there was very little access to healthcare for the families in these neighborhoods. So they zeroed in on that.

[Read our explainer: What is ‘human-centered design’?]

Additionally, over the past few years, they began a visioning process to really think about what Columbus should look like in 2050, with the idea that to remain a vibrant city moving forward they had to shift from sprawling outward growth toward denser infill development.

So they had a broader vision — around urban planning and social mobility — and when the DOT challenge came up, they were able to say, “Hey, this is an opportunity to really advance some of the things we’ve been thinking about,” rather than, “This technology looks cool. Let’s figure out how to use it.”

There’s a case from San José, where AV companies wanted to run pilots on city streets, and Mayor Sam Liccardo said, sure, but only if you look at ways these cars can accomplish goals we’re interested in, like reducing traffic-related injuries and deaths and serving low-income and vulnerable residents. Do mayors need to be more forceful like this in asserting the public interest?

That’s absolutely the right approach. The mayor is the face of the city. They’re the ones setting the table. There’s a huge role for mayors to really hold firm with the tech companies and act as what I would think of as market makers — to not simply accept whatever terms they’re presented with, but to say, “These are the values we hold in terms of privacy, security, and impacts for vulnerable populations. These are the things we care about. And if you want to come in here, you have to also help advance that vision.”

[Read: How mayors lead: Emerging insights from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative]

The ability to do that comes from this “smart enough” city perspective that the technology isn’t valuable in and of itself, and there are plenty of other opportunities to solve urban challenges that aren’t related to technology. And that, fundamentally, we’re grounded in a broader vision we’re trying to advance in our city. Having that perspective enables you to recognize that, as a city, you don’t need to have that tech company as much as they need you — because you are their customer and that’s how they’re going to survive. You have to have that ability to say no.

And if you are the mayor of New York or Chicago or San José, you have, I think, a great deal of influence over the tech companies. You are the stewards of this public space and these public resources. You also have the ability to really shape things for smaller cities that don’t have as much bargaining power.

Do cities need any new internal capacities to become “smart enough”?

A lot of cities are moving in the right direction. The chief data officer is a new position that really has only existed for about five years. Seattle hired one of the first chief privacy officers for a city in the nation two years ago. There’s also been a lot of development around innovation teams and data analytics teams in cities, and those are really valuable in terms of providing in-house expertise so that cities have a deeper understanding of technical capabilities and limits. In meetings with technology companies, they can have a stronger, more-informed perspective.

Maybe five or 10 years ago, the stereotype was that cities didn’t understand technology. Now, what I’m seeing is that the leaders inside cities are actually very thoughtful about a lot of this.