And for cities, especially U.S. cities, competing with other cities for private investment sparks a race to the bottom in which public agencies compete for new technologies that don’t work well with technical systems or processes. already in place. Many experienced the smart city craze of the 2010s with a sense of anxiety: they joined together because they feared they would be left behind in the battle for the creative class and the new economy of the world. innovation only because they believed that new technologies could provide real solutions.
All this to say that in many ways the city is no longer the main consumer of smart city companies. Rather, it functions primarily as an innovation sandbox that the tech industry uses to prototype products and distribute services. For industry, cities are primarily just the places where its customers live.
A lighter touch
In previous eras, partnerships between cities and industries gave birth to new roads, bridges, buildings, parks and even entire neighborhoods. These changes, from sprawling suburbs like Levittown to the vast Eisenhower-era freeway system to Boston’s central thoroughfare, have drawn much criticism. But at least they involved real investment in the built environment.
Today, however, cities like Toronto have organized themselves against large-scale smart city initiatives that propose changes to physical infrastructure, and many tech companies have turned to “leaner” projects. Smart services like ridesharing and food delivery apps, which collect a lot of data but leave the physical city unchanged, are popular among these.
A real problem is that smart city projects, in their many manifestations, don’t look back to see what needs to be changed, adapted, rolled out or undone. Functionally, cities are built on layers of interconnected (and sometimes disconnected) systems. Standing at any street corner in the city center means observing the old and new infrastructures (traffic lights, light poles) installed at different times for different reasons by both public agencies and businesses. private. (Regulations also vary widely between jurisdictions: in the United States, for example, local governments have very responsive land use controls.) But most current projects are not designed to be backward compatible with city systems. existing. The idea of smart cities, like the tech sector itself, is forward looking.
The now popular “light” interventions float above the complexity of the urban landscape. They are based on existing platforms: the same roads, the same houses, the same cars. These business models require (and offer) few upgrades and minimize the need for tech companies to negotiate with the systems in place. Soofa, for example, ad that its intelligent orientation bollards can be installed with just “four bolts in any concrete surface”. But these displays barely fit into a city’s existing transportation system, let alone improve it.