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7. The Smart Enough City: Lessons from the Past and a Framework for the Future

Published onMar 29, 2019
7. The Smart Enough City: Lessons from the Past and a Framework for the Future

We have, at this point, discredited many promises of the smart city and demonstrated the perverse effects of tech goggles. But perhaps some lingering doubt remains. After all, today’s technology is remarkable in many ways: we can gather data about phenomena that were previously opaque, predict outcomes that once appeared unforeseeable, and interact with others on a historically unimaginable scale. Is it not possible, as Sidewalk Labs founder and CEO Dan Doctoroff asserts, that “digital technologies [will] bring about a revolution in urban life” on par with the upheavals introduced by the steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile?1

Indeed it is. But just because a revolution stems from technology does not mean that its primary impacts will be technical: digital technologies designed for the smart city will drastically alter municipal governance and urban life. We must therefore be thoughtful about how cities adopt digital technology not for technological reasons—to ensure that they get the most advanced tools to maximize efficiency, for example—but because the technical infrastructure undergirding the smart city will go a long way toward determining the social and political infrastructure of twenty-first-century urbanism.

The most recent revolutionary technology that Doctoroff touts—the automobile—was remarkably destructive. Cars may not have been inevitably harmful to cities, but the attitude that cars were the key to urban progress was disastrous. Automobile manufacturers and oil companies promoted the “Motor Age,” presenting corporate propaganda under the guise of providing socially optimal efficiencies. In the belief that smoother traffic was universally desirable, cities were reconstructed to support the efficient flow of vehicles at the expense of all else. They have spent much of the past half century attempting to undo those mistakes.

Today, technology companies promote the smart city as a new form of corporate propaganda. And if, as Doctoroff promises, digital technology produces a revolution similar to the one generated by cars—if the age of the smart city is anything like the Motor Age—it would be a travesty that mutilates cities.

The Motor Age is just one instance of the damage produced when utopians wearing tech goggles, fixated on the new science or technology du jour, reduce complex social and political matters to technical ones that can be optimized. In fact, despite the extent to which the smart city is presented as sui generis, today’s discourse surrounding smart cities echoes the same beliefs and values espoused in the past, most notably in twentieth-century high-modern urban planning. Presaging the smart city, proponents of that movement believed that recent scientific and technological developments provided the tools to solve pressing urban issues. And in striving to optimize cities according to this narrow vision, high modernists perverted what they were trying to fix. This is not a historical anomaly but the inevitable result of reforms inspired by tech goggles, regardless of the specific technology: optimizing society with rationality and efficiency in mind requires reducing complex ecosystems to simplified schemas, often causing irrevocable damage.

The discredited tropes and schemes of high-modern urban planning rear their undying heads in the smart city, placing the future of urbanism at risk. The issue is not that today’s data and algorithms are inherently flawed or malicious—just as earlier technologies and scientific methods were not inherently flawed or malicious—but rather that ecological systems such as cities are far too complex to perfectly rationalize and that attempts to do so often create long-term damage. We need not fear technology in general—but if history is any guide, we must be wary of those who promote bold visions of science and technology as providing solutions that transcend history and politics to produce an optimal society. History has told us that the world created under the influence of tech goggles is an undesirable one. We must instead pursue an alternative vision that bears no imprint of tech goggles: the Smart Enough City.

* * *

Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century provides an instructive example of the limits of hyper-rationalized planning. When a wood shortage threatened the economy, public officials began closely managing local forests to maximize wood production. New mathematical techniques helped scientists keep track of the environment and calculate, from each tree’s size and age, the amount of wood that it would produce.2

The natural complexity of forests got in the way, however: the unsystematically scattered trees were hard to measure and the abundance of other wildlife drained resources that could otherwise help the trees grow larger, faster. Refusing to be thwarted in their quest to optimize timber yields and increase profits, the Germans undertook a massive effort to cultivate more rational and manageable forests. They cleared existing growth and planted new trees in long, ordered rows, simplifying the natural environment down to its most essential, timber-producing components. Where once lay underbrush and a disordered mix of all ages and types of trees soon grew manicured rows of uniform trees along open pathways.

The results were, at first, remarkable. Wood production skyrocketed, bolstering the economy, and German forestry practices spread across the world. The forests’ visual order became synonymous with their underlying bureaucratic order. But after one or two generations of trees had grown in any given forest—roughly a century—production severely declined. Some forests died completely.

As recounted by the political scientist James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State, this tale reveals that the downfall of Germany’s forests was caused not by some unexplainable ecosystem collapse but by an early version of the tech goggles cycle. First, tech goggles: inspired by new scientific methods of mathematical analysis, German officials were confident that making forests more measurable and manipulable was the key to enhancing timber production. Next, technology: the Germans implemented this vision by transforming forests from unmanageable and incomprehensible thickets into regimented factories for commercial timber. And finally, reinforcement: as these practices gained worldwide esteem, the perspective of tech goggles became entrenched through new social conceptions that commodified “nature” as “natural resources.” For example, writes Scott, “the actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood.”3

Germany’s myopic approach to optimizing tree growth ignored and devalued elements that proved essential—quite literally, it missed the forest for the trees. Creating rational forests optimized for tree growth entailed not merely excluding bushes, plants, birds, and insects from scientific models of timber production but eliminating them from forests almost entirely. Such elimination is the inevitable result of reconstructing the world according to narrow visions: what does not get measured is dismissed as unnecessary and detrimental. And while at first these practices appeared to spur more efficient tree growth, they forever reduced the forests to brittle monoculture environments that lacked the biodiversity to maintain nutrient-rich soil and protect against devastation from disease and bad weather. Despite extensive efforts, the Germans were unable to fully revive these forests.

For Scott, the parable of the forests “illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.”4 From the narrow perspective of tech goggles, it may appear possible to optimize the element of interest. But it seems that way only because tech goggles simplify and distort a given ecosystem into something that can be optimized. Acting on this vision surely optimizes something, but it may not be what was intended and may generate unforeseen and irreparable damage. This is the fundamental danger of tech goggles, and one that we have seen rear its head several times.

Unfortunately, such myopic and unsuccessful schemes have not been limited to forests. The same destructive, reductionist ideas that drove the German foresters have since motivated many reformers striving to improve society.

A notable example of such thinking is the ideology of high modernism, which emerged following the incredible advances in science and technology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During those years, humans took flight, discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, brought electric power into homes, and invented the telephone and the internal combustion engine. Making possible an astonishing range of advances, from vaccinating populations to providing transportation over long distances, science and technology provided solutions to countless previously intractable problems.

High modernism was not driven by a general appreciation for science, however. Instead, as Scott describes, high modernists embraced a broad and grandiose faith in scientific reasoning, believing that “rational engineering of all aspects of social life [would] improve the human condition.”5 Most dangerously, they presumed that scientific knowledge granted them an authority to reform society that overrode all other forms of judgment. Now that scientific approaches could devise optimal solutions to social problems, high modernists believed, politics was no longer necessary: public deliberation and political interests would merely impede or distort the ideal solutions they could develop. In fact, many high modernists asserted that to fully realize their utopian visions, existing habitats would have to be abandoned—a new and optimal society could be achieved only by starting from a blank slate.

An essential attribute of high-modern acolytes, notes Scott, is that they “see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rationally organized city, village, or farm was a city that looked regimented and orderly in a geometrical sense.”6 This disposition values not just any visual order but a particular order in which the world is observed from above. Scott attributes the growing appeal of this perspective in the twentieth century to the development of the helicopter and airplane. Looking down on the world from above as a god would, many high modernists felt omniscient and omnipotent.

Urban planning is one of the domains where high modernists were most influential, and where the limits of that ideology became most apparent. An early proponent of such thinking was the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. In 1902, Howard published Garden Cities of To-Morrow, deploring the rise of “crowded, ill-ventilated, unplanned, unwieldy, unhealthy cities.”7 He proposed the Garden City as a new type of rational community where every facility was placed in its proper location. At the Garden City’s center is a large garden, surrounded by core public buildings such as the town hall and library. Further out from the center, along Grand Avenue, are schools, playgrounds, and houses of worship. The outer ring of the town has designated locations for factories, warehouses, and other facilities.

Howard used mathematical formulas to precisely specify how to maximize social welfare in Garden Cities: the proper balance between housing and jobs; the need for amenities such as playgrounds, schools, and open space; and the optimal population. These formulas could even inform planners when the population of a particular Garden City surpassed its capacity (approximately 30,000–50,000 people) and a new, peripheral one needed to be developed several miles away.8

Howard believed that the Garden City necessitated a radical departure from the past. He saw little worth salvaging in London; instead, he maintained, “better results [can] be obtained by starting on a bold plan on comparatively virgin soil.” Continuing to inhabit existing and obsolete cities when “modern scientific methods” promised a better way, Howard asserted, would be like clinging to disproven geocentric philosophies in stubborn resistance to modern astronomy.9

Ebenezer Howard was just the start, however. No one better illustrates the perspective and danger of high-modern urban planning than the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), who took Howard’s utopian dream to even more extreme heights. Despising Paris as a “vision of Dante’s Inferno,” Le Corbusier in 1933 proposed the Radiant City: a “vertical garden city” that was to be “an organized [and] ordered entity.”10

Among the many scientific and technological advances of his day, Le Corbusier was particularly inspired by the airplane. In his 1935 paean, Aircraft, he described the aerial perspective as “a new function added to our senses.” And when Le Corbusier considered from above “the cities where it is our lot to be,” he was unnerved: “The airplane indicts the city [as] old, decayed, frightening, diseased.”11 Le Corbusier thus saw no choice but to pursue a fresh start. “We must refuse to afford even the slightest consideration to . . . the mess we are in now. There is no solution to be found there,” he wrote. “The only thing to do is to take a sheet of clean paper and to begin work on the calculations, the figures, the realities of life as it is today.”12

Le Corbusier hailed his Radiant City as a place of “total efficiency and rationalization.” He designed it, following a linear and Cartesian logic, to possess a rigid functional segregation that would replace the “artificial mingling of functions only indifferently related to one another” that was endemic in existing cities. In a style known as “towers in the park,” neighborhoods would consist of skyscrapers surrounded by vast open spaces. Residences, factories, shopping centers, and other facilities would each be placed in designated sectors. Moreover, to reduce the inefficiencies that attend shopping and meal preparation, Le Corbusier envisioned centralized catering services that would deliver hot meals straight to people’s doors.13 He even proposed having factory workers live separately from their families to minimize transportation between the residential and industrial zones.14

All of this was, of course, to be optimized through modern scientific methods. Le Corbusier devised “prodigiously true” plans to determine the exact needs of residents—from living space to playgrounds to sunlight—and to allocate resources according to those needs. He declared that this approach had enabled him to produce the “correct, realistic, exact plan” for cities that “has taken account of nothing but human truths.”15

To Le Corbusier, this meant that his plan was “incontrovertible” and thus transcended politics: “This Plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.” Le Corbusier believed that the Radiant City represented the unique solution for an ideal society, and that no politician, law, or member of the public should be allowed to stand in the way of its creation.16

Although Le Corbusier was not provided with much opportunity to build cities himself, the places that were developed following his vision demonstrate the limits and dangers of high-modernist urban schemes.

Le Corbusier’s dream of a utopian city founded on a blank slate was realized in the Brazilian capital of Brasília. Founded in 1960 on previously empty land, Brasília was designed in the style of the Radiant City by the architects Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. The city followed strict spatial segregation that created distinct sectors for housing, work, recreation, and public administration. Self-contained superquadra (super blocks) contained apartment buildings and facilities such as schools and retail establishments, and were built in proportion to what were believed to be the “ideal” conditions for the population, such as the UNESCO standard of 25 square meters of green space per resident.17

Figure 7.1: Brasília’s South Wing, containing a grid of residential superquadra.

Source: Photograph by Eric Royer Stoner, “Escala residencial,” Brasília, Brazil (August 2007).

But instead of being healthy and egalitarian, as Le Corbusier’s calculations predicted of a Radiant City, Brasília was dull and dispiriting. As the anthropologist James Holston documents in The Modernist City, the conditions of the city “contradicted what was intended.” Residents “coined the expression brasilite, meaning ‘Brasíl(ia)-itis,’” to describe the trauma of living there. Unlike the previous capital, Rio de Janeiro, where streets and public squares served as “the points of sociality” replete with festivals, children playing, and adults mingling, Brasília was “a city without crowds.”18 And rather than produce equality, the city’s design engendered merely anonymity. In fact, while elites appreciated Brasília’s economic opportunities and high living standards, the laborers who built the city were shunned and subjugated by the government. Through political conflict and worker rebellion, Brasília became a city of extreme social and spatial segregation in which the majority of the population lived in unplanned, illegal settlements on the city’s periphery.

The predilections of high-modern urban planning spread to the United States, finding their most notable champion in Robert Moses. Like Howard and Le Corbusier, Moses was motivated in large part by a desire for singular functionality and visual order. According to the biographer Robert Caro, Moses’s “vast creative energies were fired by the vision of cleanliness, order, openness, sweep—such as the clean, open sweep of a highway—and were repelled by dirt and noise, such as the dirt and noise he associated with trains.”19 In part for this reason, Moses built countless parkways while strongly resisting all efforts to enhance public transit. And believing, as did Le Corbusier, that his plans were socially optimal and thus transcended traditional forms of public decision making, Moses was notorious for ignoring public input and using dirty, heavy-handed tactics to implement his visions.

Moses also oversaw New York City’s urban renewal efforts. Much of the public housing constructed under Moses (as in many other U.S. cities) was built in Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” style. Although underfunding and political neglect were also to blame, the Brasília-esque design of these complexes (such as the Fort Greene Houses in Brooklyn) contributed to their becoming what the journalist Harrison Salisbury called “the new ghettos” and “human cesspools.”20 Moreover, these supposedly benevolent projects often provided cover for the mass relocation of lower-income and black residents,21 leading James Baldwin to declare that “urban renewal . . . means negro removal.”22

The influence of tech goggles permeates the beliefs and designs of Howard, Le Corbusier, and Moses. All three possessed an excessive faith in order and efficiency that led them to distort the nature of urbanism and reject democracy. They saw themselves as solving technical problems with objective answers rather than making political decisions that involve complex trade-offs and that could engender legitimate differences of opinion. Le Corbusier in particular believed that he had developed the one and only solution for human existence, never recognizing that the question of what should be efficient (let alone whether efficiency is even a worthwhile goal) is a normative one.

This ideology explains why the cities and developments fashioned according to high-modern dreams failed to create livable and equitable urban environments: planners relied on the misguided perception that the value of cities comes from their rational organization and their ability to efficiently provide goods and services, and unwaveringly designed cities to maximize these ends. But just as optimizing the German forests for timber production required eliminating most plants and animals—much of what makes a forest a forest—so creating ideal cities according to high-modern visions required stripping away mixed uses, crowds, and tradition—much of what makes a city a city. That Brasília and New York were plagued by political conflict in addition to design flaws merely emphasizes what high modernists dangerously overlook: clever technical plans cannot eliminate politics.

Diagnosing these schemes as “the sacking of cities,” Jane Jacobs in 1961 criticized top-down, superficially rational planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Animating Jacobs’s excoriation was high modernism’s misunderstanding of “[t]he kind of problem a city is.” By rejecting the preeminence of visual, planned order and instead valuing the lived experiences of urban residents, Jacobs recognized that what high-modern planners perceived as “chaos” and “disorder in the life of city streets” actually “represent a complex and highly developed form of order.” She identified urban dwellers not as abstract agents who merely require efficient food delivery and a scientifically determined quantity of parks and housing, but as people engaged in “intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.”23

Jacobs concluded that cities are not problems of “simplicity” or “disorganized complexity” that could be solved using the types of equations pioneered over the previous two centuries. Instead, she saw cities as ecosystems of “organized complexity” replete with countless interrelated components—environments that modern mathematical methods were ill-equipped to systematize or optimize.24

Yet because the tech goggles of the day were forged in the fires of those methods, high modernists like Le Corbusier and Moses could not perceive what fell beyond the purview of their mathematical schemas. Their deeply simplified notions of urbanism led them to stamp out the features that actually foster vibrant and buoyant communities and to create what Jacobs called the “anti-city.”25

* * *

When we keep the lessons of history in mind, the smart city no longer appears to represent a bright new future—instead, it signals a regressive return to an ideology that has already been pursued and condemned. Even the language highlighting today’s visions is remarkably evocative of the past: just as Le Corbusier hailed the Radiant City as “harmonious and lyrical,” now MIT’s Senseable City Lab describes its intelligent intersections that will obviate streetlights as “orchestra conductors” that will help “lanes of cars merge harmoniously.”26 One cannot help concluding that if Le Corbusier were alive today, he would be one of the smart city’s most vocal and provocative boosters.

The primary distinction between high-modern urbanism and the smart city is that our tech goggles have evolved, inspired by the advancements in science and technology over the past several decades. Whereas utopian visions of twentieth-century cities prioritized visual order, drawing on new capabilities of flight to conceive of the city from above, utopian visions of smart cities prioritize digital order, drawing on new capabilities of data collection and analysis to conceive of the city from a computer. Last century’s acolytes believed that new methods from the physical sciences would solve all social ills; today’s place their faith in the smart city’s holy trinity: Big Data, machine learning, and the Internet of Things.

To put the problem in the terms of Jane Jacobs, those looking through tech goggles are once again misdiagnosing “the kind of problem a city is.” Rather than grappling with cities as problems of organized complexity or with the fundamental social and political challenges of urban life, smart city idealists describe cities as abstract technical processes that can be optimized using sensors, data, and algorithms. Blind to the countless aspects of urbanism that cannot be reduced to an app or an algorithm, they risk creating a modern incarnation of the anti-city.

The technology company Hitachi, for example, describes cities as “convenient places to live since they are equipped with social infrastructure such as electricity, water, and public transport, along with a variety of facilities such as housing, offices, and commercial facilities.”27 Living PlanIT, another company building smart city technologies, insists that “[c]ities need an ‘operating system.’”28 The startup accelerator Y Combinator, a company at the vanguard of Silicon Valley’s tech industry, puts it most succinctly, writing that the primary question in its effort to build smart cities is, “What should a city optimize for?”29

Figure 7.2: A diagram created by Sidewalk Labs depicting a computational vision of the city. Blue lines emanate from sensors on buildings and cars to represent their perceptions, while abstract boxes (containing the only solid lines in the figure) mark people and cars. The digital order presented in this utopian vision of the smart city echoes the visual order of twentieth-century utopian visions (figure 7.1).

Source: Sidewalk Labs, “Vision Sections of RFP Submission” (October 17, 2017), p. 71,

Another statement from Y Combinator is remarkable for the precision with which it describes how cities appear through tech goggles: “Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.”30 The sentence is constructed like a typical mathematical optimization problem, demonstrating how the company approaches smart cities from an engineer’s perspective. The expressed desire to create “the best possible city” reveals Y Combinator’s myopic belief that an objectively optimal city exists, overlooking the politics, history, and culture of cities, as well as the diverse and often conflicting wants and needs of urban residents (indeed, it is hard to imagine that Y Combinator, a company steeped in Silicon Valley riches, shares a definition of “best” with the many communities being displaced by that wealth). Finally, Y Combinator’s identification of “existing laws” as the sole constraint hampering cities highlights the company’s incredibly narrow and shortsighted understanding of urban challenges and progress. By its logic, any flaws in existing cities have nothing to do with resource limitations or social conflict—just laws based on obsolete models of managing information and resources. The company’s scorn for laws echoes that of the previous generation of utopian city building, in which Le Corbusier proudly declared that his plan “has ignored all current regulations.”31

This brings us to the strongest indicator that technophiles perceive cities as little more than abstract staging grounds for efficient mobility solutions and service delivery: the persistent desire of technologists to build smart cities from scratch. Despite the significant challenges faced by early smart city efforts such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and Songdo, South Korea, both of which remain largely desolate,32 not to mention the similar failures of earlier tabula rasa cities such as Brasília, today’s technologists have heedlessly taken up the cause. Y Combinator eagerly proclaims that “it’s possible to do amazing things given a blank slate.”33

Sidewalk Labs takes this perspective further, asserting that it is not just possible but in society’s best interest to build smart cities without the encumbrances of history or place. Dan Doctoroff has stated that “there is an inverse relationship between your capacity to innovate, and the actual existence of people and buildings.”34 The company boldly acted on this vision in 2017, announcing a partnership in Toronto to develop an undeveloped 12-acre waterfront parcel into “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up.”35

The most pernicious aspect of such ambitions is that they are presented as value-neutral and universally desirable. In conceiving of cities as optimization and technology problems and observing only what can be made efficient, technologists come to equate technical solutions with socially optimal ones. Such thinking diminishes their appreciation for the multiplicity of perspectives and needs that exist in (and perhaps cultivate) cities. Just as Le Corbusier believed that his “incontrovertible” plan had “taken account of nothing but human truths,”36 Sidewalk Labs promises that their new city, with “ubiquitous connectivity designed into its very foundation,” would be “a place that gives people more of what we love about cities with less of what we don’t”37—somehow presuming in defiance of all history that there exists an obvious, single model of what a city should be and that technology can immunize cities from the intractable challenges of urban governance and life.

Yet even in its first year of development, Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project has been beset by political disputes. Recognizing that digital kiosks (like those of LinkNYC) would be just the tip of the data collection iceberg in a city neighborhood run by Sidewalk Labs, many Toronto residents have demanded more information about what data will be collected and how it will be used. The project is also haunted by the specter of shifting the management and ownership of public services over to an unelected and unaccountable private company, whose efforts will be aided by cuts in regulations. Sidewalk Labs has preached their intentions to include the community in developing this project. But after several public meetings at which the company released scant details about its plans, one local technologist declared that “the public engagement process is off the rails.”38 Moreover, the project’s rapid timeline makes it almost possible for the public to exert a meaningful influence over its development. Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto neighborhood may indeed represent a new type of urbanism with technology at its core, but not one with “more of what we love about cities.” Instead, it will be rife with the same issues that have plagued countless other cities: unaccountable decision making, privatized public services, and eviscerated political debate.

Simply put, utopian technological solutions fail to provide the answers that cities need.

“There’s a real danger with some of this stuff that I call ‘smartwashing’ a problem that actually needs real investment,” remarked Boston’s chief information officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge at a 2017 conference about the Internet of Things. “We say, ‘Let’s just throw some technology fairy dust at it and that’s going to make it go away.’ But often the question of how that technology is going to deliver real and meaningful outcomes for constituents is not really answered.”39

Nigel Jacob, Franklin-Hodge’s colleague in Boston, shares a similar frustration. He recounts, “We’ve had so many conversations with vendors where they show up with the big pitch: ‘We’ll solve every problem in your city, if you buy this one technology.’” Every time, Jacob says, Boston would explain why it was not bullish on the proposed technology. But the objections were rarely heeded. “Sometimes the company would come back with a better pitch, but more often they would not. They would go to another city that asked fewer questions.”40

Exasperated, Jacob and his team put their most common feedback into a single document that they could share with companies and technologists. In September 2016, they released the “Boston Smart City Playbook,” espousing Boston’s intention to deploy technology that is “people-centered, problem-driven, and responsible.”41

“So far,” the playbook begins, “many ‘Smart City’ pilot projects that we’ve undertaken here in Boston have ended with a glossy presentation, and a collective shrug. Nobody’s really known what to do next, or how the technology and data might lead to new or improved services.” The Playbook then lists six frank recommendations, starting with

  1. “Stop sending sales people: . . . send us someone who knows about cities, someone who wants to walk in the shoes of our City workers or talk to residents”;

  2. “Solve real problems for real people: . . . we can’t help feeling like this keeps getting lost. . . . How do you know that ‘the problem’ you’re addressing really is a problem?”; and

  3. “Don’t worship efficiency: . . . focusing on ‘efficiency’ assumes that we’ve already figured out what services to deliver to residents, and now just have to make it all cheaper. That’s unfortunately not the case.”42

The playbook demonstrates Boston’s sense that the smart city is more of a distraction than a goal. “We are trying to be very values focused, and in particular to solve real problems for real people,” explains Franklin-Hodge. “Our smart cities strategy is just our city strategy. It’s about having an equitable city. It’s about having economic development. It’s about sustainability. If I’m developing a smart city strategy that isn’t directly tied to those real needs and challenges we have as a city, then I’m not doing my job.”43

Boston’s commentary highlights the need for technologists to ground themselves in the needs of city governments and urban residents. Just as Jane Jacobs understood that a city should be designed according to the lived experience of its inhabitants rather than urban planners’ top-down, visual notions of order, Jacob and Franklin-Hodge recognize that cities should adopt technology to meet the genuine needs of urban residents rather than to follow engineers’ computational notions of order.

Digital technology is not inevitably harmful. But the view through tech goggles, that it is possible to create optimal cities using new technology, diverts attention away from and subverts opportunities to democratically and equitably improve cities. In its very name, the smart city positions being “smart” as the goal—as if better data and technology inherently benefit society—leading to an urban agenda of enhancing technology without fully considering the implications of doing so or the variety of alternative goals that could be pursued. When Y Combinator asks, “What should a city optimize for?,” it presupposes that optimization is the primary tool with which to improve urban life, ignoring the multitude of issues that are not reducible to an optimization problem. This perspective tends to entrench the status quo and to hinder other, more important reforms.

The Smart Enough City reorients this logic by prompting a fundamental question: smart enough for what? In the Smart Enough City, where being “smart” is a means rather than an end, the focus can rightfully turn to the social needs that technology addresses. As Boston demonstrates, that means employing technology only as it is able to alleviate “real problems for real people.”

This is the essential paradigm shift for cities, both in the United States and beyond. Although this book has focused on developments within the United States, many of the same trends, opportunities, and challenges exist around the world. Singapore is eagerly deploying autonomous vehicles and welcomed the world’s first self-driving taxis.44 In Ethiopia, Addis Ababa has deployed a “smart parking system” to address the city’s severe shortage of parking.45 Participatory budgeting was born in Brazil, where to this day it is used in hundreds of cities (often comprising larger portions of municipal budgets than in the United States);46 Brazil is a leader in synthesizing online and offline approaches to participatory budgeting.47 In China, the city of Xinjiang has aggressively deployed a predictive policing platform that draws on a great deal of personal data,48 leading the Wall Street Journal to deem it “one of the most closely surveilled places on earth.”49 In 2017, London began rolling out InLinkUK kiosks (an almost exact replica of the LinkNYC program) with minimal public outreach,50 and it has placed countless sensors in metro stations to track the behavior of commuters.51 Barcelona has spearheaded several Internet of Things deployments across the city,52 all while developing participatory processes to curb the power of tech companies, to provide transparency regarding the use of algorithms, and to transfer ownership and control of data to the public.53 Through these efforts and countless more, cities across the globe are stumbling and pioneering their way toward new uses of technology. We all bear the responsibility for pushing these efforts toward the ideals of smart enough, rather than smart, cities.

* * *

From prenatal healthcare in Columbus to participatory budgeting in Vallejo to proactive social services in Johnson County to the surveillance ordinance in Seattle to data drills in New York City, we have seen numerous ingredients for creating Smart Enough Cities. To support and further these efforts, I have summarized five essential principles for Smart Enough Cities that have emerged throughout the book. Although surely incomplete, this list will, I hope, help set forth an agenda for more livable, democratic, just, responsible, and innovative cities.

1. Address complex problems rather than solve artificially simple ones

Simplistic conceptions of social and political challenges always accompany tech goggles. The histories of German forests, high-modern urban planning, and the Motor Age demonstrate the destructiveness of this perspective: overlooking or striving to eradicate the world’s natural complexity leads to “solutions” that address artificial problems and often create more problems than they solve.

Unfortunately, these same simplistic notions pervade the widespread hopes and dreams surrounding smart cities. Self-driving cars appear poised to create urban utopias, for example, but only because technologists focus disproportionately on efficient car travel as the hallmark of a good city. In their failure to recognize the many challenges and trade-offs related to transportation, or even the need to balance smooth traffic against other goals, technologists overestimate the benefits of automated vehicles while also ignoring other types of reforms. In other words, they oversimplify the problem of transportation into one that can be solved via optimization and then propose an elegant solution.

In contrast, Smart Enough Cities more fully grasp the complexity of urban issues and hence better recognize the limits and opportunities of technology. Rather than focusing on mobility as a matter merely of convenience, the Smart Columbus team recognized that mobility is interconnected with other challenges such as inequality. It further avoided the trap of artificial simplicity by engaging with a diverse local population to determine what transportation barriers they actually face. Doing so enabled Columbus to move beyond some of its simplistic initial notions and develop effective mobility reforms that address the real problems residents face. As Carla Bailo explains, “We really needed to look at it from a more holistic viewpoint.”54 Columbus cannot remove obstacles to mobility or equity with a single technology or policy reform, but its efforts will alleviate some the daily challenges that residents face.

2. Implement technology to address social needs and advance policy, rather than adapting goals and values to align with technology

This is at the heart of Franklin-Hodge’s mantra for Boston: your smart city strategy should be the same as your broader city strategy. Smart Enough Cities are driven by clear policy goals and long-term planning efforts. They often embrace technology as a tool to advance their values, but the technology never dictates those objectives.

Tech goggles (and by extension the tech goggles cycle), on the other hand, shape urban innovation according to the logic and capabilities of technology. To address today’s challenges in civic engagement and democracy, city governments and technologists have proposed countless technologies: online platforms, social networks, and 311 apps, all with the express purpose of making politics and governance simpler and more efficient. But power and politics are not optimization problems—being “smart” will not solve democracy. For example, 311 apps may make it easy to notify the government about a broken streetlight, but they do little to empower residents or generate deeper community ties.

Smart Enough Cities instead lead with social and political goals and deploy technology only to advance that agenda. They are not seduced by technologies that sound attractive but do not align with their plans and values. In contrast to typical civic engagement apps, online platforms such as Community PlanIt can help develop civic relationships and capacities by embracing “meaningful inefficiencies.” Similarly, Vallejo altered local democratic practices by implementing participatory budgeting; new apps are engaging more people in the process, but the program’s fundamental change came from giving the public new deliberative opportunities and decision-making power.

3. Prioritize innovative policy and program reforms above innovative technology

Smart Enough Cities create their most significant impacts through policy and process reforms that thoughtfully address local needs. Technology can make these reforms more effective, but it is never the driving force. In fact, many of the success stories we examined involve relatively simple data analyses and technologies, deployed to support innovative policies. Their deployment was successful because enhancing technology is just one form of innovation—a good program that relies on simple technology is better than a bad program that uses cutting-edge technology.

In smart cities, however, technology takes center stage. Eager to be seen as innovative and race-neutral, police departments have enthusiastically adopted predictive policing software. But they are missing the point: communities need a fundamental reshaping of police practices and priorities, not an enhancement by algorithm of the same old behavior. In fact, by providing a sheen of neutrality, predictive policing algorithms justify and exacerbate discriminatory inequities and police practices, thereby putting more systemic reforms further out of reach.

Smart Enough Cities should instead follow what I call the “limited tech test.” When considering the use of a new technology, city leaders should ask the following questions: If it were possible to achieve the same outcomes without technology, would it still be innovative? Would the impacts be desirable? Smart Enough Cities adopt technology only when they can confidently answer in the affirmative. Striving to reduce incarceration and improve social services, for instance, Johnson County began providing aid to individuals suffering from mental illness to improve their lives and keep them out of the criminal justice system. Johnson County generated these benefits not by discovering a new, infallible algorithm to optimize and legitimize existing police practices, but by reforming its programs to address community needs and then increasing this program’s efficacy with machine learning.

4. Ensure that technology’s design and implementation promote democratic values

Tech goggles make it appear that complex social issues are technical problems for which technology can provide value-neutral and socially optimal solutions. This simplistic assessment leads to smart city technologies that are designed to enhance efficiency at any cost, with little assessment of their broader social impacts.

Many smart city technologies make governments and companies more efficient by collecting as much data as possible, a process that entails infringing on people’s privacy and autonomy. Similarly, many smart cities operate with the aid of opaque and proprietary algorithms that are developed and deployed without public input. These trends create massive information and power asymmetries that empower governments and companies over those they track and analyze. In this way, the smart city is a covert tool for increasing surveillance, profits, and social control.

Embracing their role as public stewards to ensure that new technology benefits everyone, Smart Enough Cities reject the false dichotomy between smart and dumb cities that would have them eagerly deploy every new tool; they instead consider a broad range of designs for new technology to ensure that both the means and the ends support democracy and equity. Seattle and Chicago demonstrate that respecting and protecting individual privacy enables, rather than hinders, the deployment of new technology to improve urban life. Similarly, the algorithm task force in New York and surveillance oversight ordinance in Seattle demonstrate a clear path for municipalities to reverse the trend toward becoming black-box cities. As these examples indicate, rejecting or altering technology because it violates important values is not anti-technology—it is pro-democracy.

5. Develop capacities and processes for using data within municipal departments

It is easy to believe that technology can improve government simply by virtue of its sophistication. The reality is far more complicated: poor data quality limits analyses, siloed departments struggle to share data, and many departments have little trust in data to solve their problems. What makes data most useful is not having the most advanced technical capabilities but lowering institutional barriers and identifying the problems that data can address.

Municipal leaders such as Amen Ra Mashariki in New York City and Joy Bonaguro in San Francisco demonstrate how to deploy data to improve local governance—not by expecting data to magically optimize government or solve local issues but by building relationships with departments, fostering best practices for maintaining and sharing data, and training city staff in how to use data to improve their operations.

Smart Enough Cities should follow their lead, rejecting smart city rhetoric that prescribes newer and more advanced technology as the way for city governments to quickly solve every problem. They must instead focus on the painstaking work of developing the infrastructural (even quotidian) processes and practices that make data actionable.

* * *

New technology alters perceptions not just of what is possible but also of what the world can—and should—look like. Digital and data-driven technologies, accompanied by the widespread adoption of tech goggles, have convinced many that smart cities are what the challenges of the twenty-first century require: that smarter cities—more connected, more optimized, more efficient—will be better cities.

This seductive logic generates severe misperceptions and subverts opportunities to truly improve urban life. Instead of addressing the real issues that cities face, smart cities present novelty solutions to poorly specified problems. The realization of those solutions looms as a crisis in urbanism: the smart city will be a place where self-driving cars strangle downtowns and debilitate public transportation, where democracy is reduced to sending pictures of potholes with an app, where police use algorithms to justify and perpetuate racist practices, where governments and companies surveil public space to control behavior.

But despite how often we are told that the age of the smart city is imminent and inevitable, a better future is possible. We can create livable cities, where simple mobility technologies mitigate inequality and enhance public health. We can create democratic cities, where communication technologies aid new participatory processes that empower the public. We can create just cities, where machine learning algorithms help communities aid vulnerable residents. We can create responsible cities, where new technologies are designed to support privacy and democracy. We can create innovative cities, where data science is paired with nontechnological reforms to improve municipal operations and social services.

We can create these Smart Enough Cities, if only we possess the wisdom to seek them. Throw away those tech goggles, once and for all, and let’s get started.

Rasmi Elasmar:


Hui Xin Ng:

Information and Architecture

Hui Xin Ng:

Seeing Like a State

Hui Xin Ng:

technical —> political and social

Adrian Short:

Doctoroff should check out Mars for his next venture.

Adrian Short:

Moses was the Travis Bickle of City Hall.

Adrian Short:

InLinkUK has met substantial opposition, mainly on traditional urban design grounds, resulting in planning permission being refused in many areas. I’m tracking planning permissions and media coverage on my site: