Are Smart Cities Doomed to Promote Inequality?

Are Smart Cities Doomed to Promote Inequality?

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Can the Wired City Also Be the Equitable One?"

A city is smart when it makes better decisions, and there are only two types of decision: strategic and tactical. Strategic decisions determine the right thing to do. Tactical decisions choose the right way to do it. SMART technology is not smart technology if it causes us as citizens to confuse strategy with tactics. In other words, there are many decisions about the operation of a city that we may delegate happily to technology. But there are questions of governance, of determining our fate, of deciding what is the right thing to do as populace, that if we delegate—we abdicate. “To govern is to choose,” John F. Kennedy once said.

If I were to have believed the many consultants and emissaries of large technology companies that came to see me when I was the Chief Urban Designer of New York City, the SMART city they promised me was a place where the traffic lights always turned green and the elevator doors always awaited our arrival. They promised a city that would anticipate our needs at every turn, given tantalizing form in the recent present of our connected personal devices and the apps that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. Now, with the advent of the internet of things on the near horizon, we are set to make SMART cities a reality. Imagine the awesome power of an entire city synchronized to our taste and movement!

Seems too good to be true. I have a feeling that our SMART city is predicated on a lie—perhaps, less judgmentally—on a mistake in grammar, a confusion of pronouns. In talking about the anticipational SMART wonders of “our city,” we really mean “my city.” We confuse the collective with the personal. This is directly related to our relation with “personal” technology. We have marketed ourselves to believe that technology serves “us,” meaning the individual, “me.” We have conflated the selfie with a portrait of humanity.

Which is all perfectly harmless on the pixels of Facebook. But as someone who builds cities for a living; I would like to warn of the dangers to both self and community of the delusion that what you want personally is what everybody wants. “I” is not “we.”

A city is a communal creation, and a city cannot perform from everyone’s perspective as if they were the only one that mattered. The light cannot turn green in both directions. The elevator cannot be waiting at every floor. Decisions have to be made about which direction and which floor, and those decisions, even in small ways, effectively create winners and losers.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter much if I have to wait at a light while somebody else passes. In fact, given the collective increase in traffic efficiency and safety, I willingly delegate traffic control to a dumb device like a timed turn signal, and I eagerly anticipate the advent of a SMART device like a sensored intersection, so I don’t have to wait if nobody else is coming. This is all tactics.

And I have even begun to use the Waze app for all my car travel, coming to realize that it really does direct me faster from A to B. I swallow my urban designer’s pride in knowing the street network, and I accept that a routing algorithm with real-time data from multiple sources and users is better than me at wayfinding. So far, the more I delegate to technology, the faster I go. It is a win-win. I am at home with our tech-crazy society; I am loving it. And there seems no end to how much better everything will become if only I continue delegating and algorithms keep optimizing. The light truly is turning green!

Songdo in South Korea is one of the most fully developed incarnations of the "smart city" concept in the world. Image © Pixabay user alfonsojung licensed under CC0

But there is a limit to optimization, and the financial industry has found it. My office at the Stevens Institute of Technology is next door to the Financial Engineering Program, where they apply the highest technology to understand financial patterns. I see my colleagues parse the algorithms of high-speed trading; I converse with them on the technical hurdles of identifying insider trading. I am in awe of their instincts as well as their analytics. They are seeing the future of trading in real time and it’s a place where there is remarkably little room for decision-making.

Algorithms are fighting algorithms. Human traders are more and more loathe to go against the recommendations of their programs. The next generation of traders seem to be quants. They don’t pick stocks. They pick code. The code makes an algorithm, and the algorithm makes a trade. But the algorithms have gone beyond tactical decision-making—of how best to execute a trade—and entered strategic decision-making: how to defeat an opponent.

Their algorithms are sensing data. They’re also creating data to spoof the sensors of other algorithms. They place trades and cancel them in nanoseconds, leaving the responder’s price naked. Technology is too fast for regulation in the SMART world of finance. The only premise is that on the other side of every successful trade is a loser. It is a zero-sum game.

It’s no surprise that trading creates winners and losers. What is surprising is the degree to which those winners and losers are decided by algorithm. As such, I think it gives us a glimpse of a harsher civic future than SMART city advocates would paint. Yes, the immediate application of SMART technology will weed out tremendous inefficiencies, and everyone should benefit. But eventually, those collective inefficiencies will be overcome, and individual gains will require others to bear individual losses. The early aggressive adoption of sensors and algorithms by the financial world in effect made the financial world SMART. The same justifications for the collective good were invoked at the beginning by those who built, sold and applied the technology: increased liquidity through broader participation. Increased transparency through data collection. And where did it go? The technology is meeting the asymptote. The curve is flattening out. As the collective gains slacken, the zero-sum future becomes clearer. The algorithm versus algorithm, data versus data battles of a SMART financial world give us a glimpse of the future in our cities, where we realize we may have gone too far in delegating to technology.

Imagine that roads have reached capacity in a mega-city. Our Waze app has hit the asymptote of optimization. You won’t go any faster from A to B whether you go this way or that. Traffic has become a zero-sum game. To go faster in a zero-sum city, each of us needs a WazeMe app to compete against other drivers. If I arrive sooner, it will mean someone else arrives later. Imagine if driving across town was a contest between competing algorithms. These algorithms would use existing data but they would also create synthetic data to spoof the data of a competitor. When we have optimized the collective, someone begins to win and someone begins to lose. We have crossed the line from tactics to strategy.

I don’t have to enter the financial world of trading stocks, but I do have to enter the real world of city streets. Public roads are public goods, and I, as a citizen, will fight for my right to equal access and equal enjoyment of the public good. If a city were to become as SMART as the financial world, and the people with the best car algorithms went through green lights, while I waited at a red, I would be fighting mad.

The inequality of algorithms already exists, between those with a SMART phone and data plan, and those without. Is that fair? What cost does such an inequality impose on a city? Is the cost a corrosion of the social cohesion based on equal citizenship? While my research is based in the technology of hydrodynamics and urban design in an effort to make cities resilient to climate change, I have found that far more than any sort of complex computational modeling, social cohesion is the mainstay of a city’s resilience. Certainly a city that decreases social cohesion through technology cannot be called SMART.

Social cohesion is a function of participation and is based on respect. We demonstrate respect by how we behave in public space. The other side of the social contract is that public space has to be a common good with no barrier to entry. Public space builds public trust if and only if everyone can go everywhere. Jane Jacobs defines public participation likewise: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

To find a balance between delegating operational decisions while increasing participation in governance is very hard to do. There is a biological analogy in the development of the separation of functions between our conscious and autonomic nervous systems. The conscious system in our brain resists delegating strategic decisions to the autonomic system in our gut. We make a conscious decision of what to eat, but we delegate how to digest it to the autonomic system controlling the thousands of sequenced contractions required to move the food through our system.

It took evolutionary time and the trial and error of natural selection to create the proper balance between the conscious and the autonomic nervous systems. We don’t have evolutionary time to figure this one out, and the consequences of delegating too much—abdicating our social responsibilities to make civic decisions—could be fatal.

Smart cities make better decisions. But cities that are both smart and democratic make the best decisions by allowing citizens to vigorously debate the right course of action, and then letting technology do it right.

Alexandros Washburn is the former Chief Urban Designer of New York City and is the Industry Professor of Design at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He is the author of the book The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience.

About this author
Cite: Alexandros Washburn. "Are Smart Cities Doomed to Promote Inequality?" 27 Sep 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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