The Sins of “Smart” Cities

Data Planning

The Sins of “Smart” Cities

I just published my first academic/literary “think” piece in four years. At the invitation of the Boston Review, I reviewed two upcoming books about civic data and the appealing trap of “smart” cities.

I’m quite proud of the full piece, largely thanks to their excellent editor. If 2600 words sounds like too much to scan through, here’s a basic summary.

The general theme is that all the fish are going to die in 38 years and we won’t soon get another chance to build habitable cities that don’t treat half their residents like garbage.

It’s not even so simple as having a villain (though venture capital is desperately trying). It seems easier, cheaper, and expected to invite technology into decision-making. And in many cases it is, but we’re fooling ourselves if we can really “fix” anything with just a bigger spreadsheet or a clever-er accounting.

“City planners must accept that even our technical problems are political at their core.”

311 systems, especially, train us to see civic encounters as customer service. As long as we allow ourselves to be isolated on the other side of a reporting app, we’ll never break out of our scarcity mindsets and solve the real problems.

“Intentionally avoiding race with rosy euphemisms is a common approach to some of the more uncomfortable aspects of social science.”

On a related note, the City of Oakland passed a three-year paving plan that bravely sets aside the easy metric of 311 reports in favor of a truly equity-driven approach.

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