Big Data, Big Questions

The smart-city movement spreading around the globe raises serious concerns about who controls the information, and for what purpose.

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Not long ago, I bought a beetle-shaped piece of silicone and metal that slips into my pocket and keeps track of how much I walk. Called a Fitbit One, it’s essentially a glorified pedometer. The device’s shell is jammed with hard- and software that lets it talk to my computer and iPhone. It sends me attaboys! on its tiny screen and, most importantly, the gadget talks with my spouse’s Fitbit, which allows us to compete with each other.

The Fitbit is not on anyone’s list of smart-city phenomena, but I would argue for including it, because it’s changing my relationship with the streets I walk in New York City. It also illustrates the pervasiveness of smart technology, and its limitations. For all its coolness—and it is cool—my device is doing something digitally that had already been done well mechanically, and at a lower price. A lot of the smart-cities technology is like this—it’s changing how we do things, but often not what we do.  

Like its brethren S-words “smart growth” and “sustainability,” “smart city” can mean just about anything. I define it as the marrying of the city, in both its urban and suburban forms, to the telecommunications revolution signified by the silicon chip, the Internet, the fiber-optic line, and the wireless network. Because this revolution is so broad, deep and ongoing, it’s impossible to list all the present and future ways these technologies can—and will—reshape how and what cities, and their inhabitants, do. It’s my Fitbit. It’s cameras in plazas; sensors in sewers and water mains; an official in City Hall controlling individual streetlights through a smart grid; cities laying their own fiber-optic lines and creating their own broadband networks, and big companies seeking to stop them through lawsuits and lobbyists. It’s New York City using GPS data from taxicabs to do traffic planning; driverless cars; entirely new cities, such as Songdo in South Korea; a smartphone app that alerts you that a train is two minutes away. And it’s the related data—the big data—collected from these systems. 

“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 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), perhaps the best book written on the phenomenon. “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: the fiber-optic line and everything else are just tools. Like fire or an axe, they deliver power and possibilities to whomever wields them. A policeman can use street cameras with facial-recognition software to look for a thief; a dictator can use them to hunt for dissidents (and the National Security Agency can use them for God knows what). What’s important about these technologies is what’s always been important: who controls them? So far, different cities even within the same country are answering that question differently. One clear divide is public vs. private, but that’s too simple. There are public/private partnerships with government taking the lead, and the converse. 

Many of the smart-city initiatives—whether lighting in a building, trains in a subway, drivers on streets, or airplanes in the sky—revolve around collecting information about the moving parts of a system in real time, to allow a central operator more control. Again, this raises the question: who will have that control? Large companies are involved in many of these efforts, and it bears watching how much control or veto power they end up with as city governments contract with them. 

Three companies—IBM, Siemens, and Cisco—are receiving much of the attention, in part because they have initiatives that use the label “smart cities” or some variation of it. These companies have mapped out contrasting, and sometimes competing, roles for themselves. IBM illustrates the change that companies are both weathering and instigating. For years, many Americans, particularly in the corporate world, knew the fabled Big Blue as the maker of the boxes that sat on their desks. Today IBM doesn’t even sell personal computers. Although it still makes mainframe computers, IBM now calls itself a “transformation” company.

Mar 12, 2014 03:06 pm
 Posted by  Ideapete

As Alex knows one of my mantras is that smart cities are useless with dumb systems . Several colleagues of mine work on these projects and all are unanimous that they create very good prison systems but terrible places to live ( eg China ) In another article on the Whitney estate he shows how ambiance guided its construction not just extravagance. Today we are drowning in mediocre systems that no amount technology or data will fix. This is a better system

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