Government Technology

Are Cities Losing Control Over 'Smart' Initiatives? (Opinion)

Rio de Janeiro's “Centro de Operacoes
In Rio de Janiero's “Centro de Operacoes,” officials sit in a theater-sized room behind personal computer screens, while in front of them a giant screen beams out constant information on the city. These officials can monitor traffic, crime, flooding and energy use. They receive “crowd-sourced” information from citizens’ smart phones.

March 4, 2014 By Alex Marshall

From the thermostats on our walls to the sensors under the asphalt of our streets, digital technology – the so-called Internet of things – is pervading and infecting every aspect of our lives. 

As this technology comes to cities, whether lazy suburban ones or frenetic urban centers, it is increasingly wearing the banner of “Smart Cities.” Like those other S-words and phrases, such as smart growth and sustainability, a smart city can be just about anything to anybody, and therein lies both its utility and danger. I use the term to mean the marrying of our places with the telecommunications revolution that has took hold over the last half century, including the silicon chip, the Internet, the fiber optic line and broadband networks. 

Because this transformation is so broad and deep, it’s impossible to list or even dream of all the different ways we will reshape our communities, any more than we could 100 years ago name all the ways the then-new technologies of electricity or phone service would be employed. But we can list some of the ways digital technologies are being used right now. It’s sensors in sewers, face-recognizing cameras in plazas, and individual streetlights being controlled through a dial in an office at city hall. It’s entire new cities arising out of the ground, like Songdo in South Korea or others in the Middle East. 

“The old city of concrete, glass, and steel now conceals a vast underworld of computers and software,” writes Anthony M. Townsend in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for the New Utopia. “Not since the laying of water mains, sewage pipes, subway tracks, telephone lines, and electrical cables over a century ago have we installed such a vast and versatile new infrastructure for controlling the physical world.”

But as wondrous as these new technologies are, we should remember an old truth: Whether it’s the silicon chip or the entire Internet, they are just tools that deliver power and possibilities to whoever wields them. So, it’s important to know and to think about who will and should control these tools. A policeman can use street cameras with facial recognition software to look for a thief, or a dictator can use them to hunt for dissidents. So far, different cities even within the same country are answering that question differently. 

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