The most critical question, however, is whether having a smart city will make us meaningfully better at solving urban problems. Data and algorithms alone don’t actually add very much on their own. No matter how much data a city has, addressing urban challenges will still require stable long-term financing, good management and effective personnel. If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller.
For many urban challenges, effective analog — “dumb” — solutions already exist. Congestion can be tackled with autonomous cars, true; it can also be tackled with better railways, bus rapid transit and bike lanes. Houses can be covered in sensors to control an automated heating and cooling system; they can also be built with operable windows and high-quality insulation.
And public garbage cans can be emptied when sensors say they are full, or on a regular basis, based on the expertise of experienced, well-paid city workers. Smart solutions might be exciting, and they might seem cheaper in the short run, but that alone doesn’t make them better.
As an infrastructure engineer, I seek the simplest effective solution to a problem with a minimum of negative consequences. What will be durable and effective over the long term? Tech solutions to urban challenges are often a Rube Goldberg machine, a fun but unnecessarily complicated approach to solving challenges with more direct solutions.
Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities — cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.
As we consider the city of the 21st century, we do well to remember that the things we love most about cities — parks, public spaces, neighborhood communities, education opportunities — are made and populated by people, not technology. Tech has a place in cities, but that place is not everywhere.
Shoshanna Saxe is an assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto.
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