Is the smart city movement about to repeat the same mistakes? The movement seems to draw its inspiration from the crowded cities of the developing world, which will also be the biggest markets for smart technology solutions. However, technology cannot build better cities. Yes, smart technology can solve existing problems, but it will also import a whole new set of issues. The smart city is a product of the digital age: the age of smart phones and the internet, drone strikes, cyber attacks and global surveillance programs, climate change and peak oil, Google Glass, big data, social networks, and the end of privacy.
The question is not whether we want to live in a smart city or not: we don’t have that choice. We have never been fully in control of our future. We might be able to adjust the direction here and there, but we do not set the course. Technology has a way of prevailing against all opposition. Technology makes itself necessary by addressing fears, creating new possibilities, and by changing values.
I am in my late thirties now. I grew up without the internet and without a mobile phone. When I went out to play in the afternoons, I was unreachable. If my mother had to find me, she would drive around the village and look for me. The truth is that my mother didn’t know where I was most of the time. This would be considered irresponsible parenting today: because we now have the technology to reach each other all the time, we have the responsibility to be reachable at all times. Some parents even use smart phones to track their children’s whereabouts. On New Year’s Eve 2014, 36 people were killed in a stampede near Chen Yi Square on the Bund in Shanghai. The incident is considered a major failure on the side of public authorities largely because the technology and the procedures to prevent such a disaster already exist: camera surveillance and crowd control protocols. Smart technology could have prevented the disaster: therefore, it will be mandatory in the future. It is not difficult to imagine that ten to twenty years from now it will be considered irresponsible to manually drive a car in densely populated urban areas.
Our cities will become smarter, and probably safer. They might also become more boring and monotonous, because technology has a tendency towards uniformity, while culture and social interaction have a tendency towards diversity. It has become a common practice in many European cities to expel undesired people from the closely monitored downtown areas: homeless people, street artists, punks, etc. How will public spaces change when cameras and sensors replace eyes and ears? Will citizens still care about what’s happening in such places if the city takes care of itself? Why leave the apartment when companies like Amazon or Alibaba deliver everything one want or need to the doorstep? The essence of cities is in the play of everyday life as it unfolds on the stage of streets, parks, and plazas. This is the culture that creates the identity and atmosphere we grow to love about our environment. There is a lot of great promise in smart city technology, but it won’t serve to open our cities, make them more diverse, or more engaging.