In cities across the world, mayors, urban planners, citizens, and, increasingly, tech companies are using powerful new devices and programs to create smart cities, where transportation systems, energy grids, and public services can be monitored and manipulated in real time. We should be careful about how we enable ubiquitous computing to change and control our cities, cautions Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University and author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. As a researcher, Townsend has studied how cities apply technology for the past 20 years. He spoke with journalist Nate Berg for the Business Report.
The world’s urban population is expected to nearly double by 2050, to more than six billion people. What role can technology play in easing this transformation?
I think the most interesting role is in enabling the livelihood of a large number of those six billion people, particularly in the developing world. Smartphones are the technology that I think is the most important. Pretty much everybody on the planet will have a phone, and anybody who lives in a city will have a smartphone. We’re going to have billions of still relatively poor people walking around with networked supercomputers in their pockets. There’s been research that’s shown that mobile-phone service has a pretty detectable impact on GDP in poor countries. Smartphone technology—all the services that can be delivered over it—I think will have an even more significant impact.
What does a city taken over by computers—or perhaps smartphones—look like?
A city that’s taken over by computers designed by a big technology company is going to look like a machine. It’s going to be highly automated, highly centralized, and very efficient. It may not be a lot of fun, it may not be terribly respectful of our desire for privacy, it may not be very resilient. On the other hand, we could design cities that have a very decentralized, very redundant kind of infrastructure where the services that we create using sensors and displays and all these digital technologies are trying to achieve objectives that are more in line with increasing social interaction, increasing sustainable behaviors, reinforcing the development of culture, creativity, and wellness. So there are very different possible outcomes. It’s really up to the choices we make.
Smart cities are being pushed by big technology companies. Your book explores these efforts but also highlights some bottom-up approaches to making our cities smarter. Which offers a better way of managing the modern city?
A very promising development is we’re seeing mayors and other civic leaders take on the challenge of figuring out what the vision of the smart city should be and how to draw on all of the different resources that can provide technical expertise and innovations that will allow it to happen. This is why I’m so interested now in how cities are making long-term technology plans, because they’re basically taking the long-term vision they’ve already developed about what they want their city to be and trying to figure out how technology can be in service of that vision.
Are we expecting unrealistic things from the ways technology can affect our cities?
I think there are different kinds of utopias. The utopia of a perfectly controlled, perfectly efficient, safe smart city may work in a place like Singapore, and in fact they’re well on their way to building that. But it probably wouldn’t work in New York or São Paulo, where the expectations about what success looks like and what a healthy community is are totally different. Cities aren’t uniform. The thing about digital technology is it’s incredibly flexible and modular. So it’s really exciting to see all of the different combinations of parts that people can throw together to create often highly localized services that let people experience the city in different ways.
So even if Singapore creates a great smart city, we shouldn’t necessarily export those ideas wholesale to other cities.
That command-and-control model is very expensive. Singapore can do it because Singapore is a very wealthy country. But you’re probably not going to see that in Nairobi or Johannesburg or Lagos. And I think that’s where you’re going to see a lot more reliance on the kinds of devices that consumers are able to provide themselves. We already see this in transportation planning, where great strides are being made in understanding travel patterns in some of the poorest cities on earth because we’re able to see it in the mobile-phone data. Transportation is among the top barriers to managing a successful city in the developing world. It’s the thing you have to get right if you’re going to be able to do anything else, and we’ve just deployed [in mobile phones] the best transportation sensing network in the history of mankind, completely by accident.