A man walks on the street with a guitar on his back.
The Mission District, before the city added red bus lanes. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

A Smart City Is Rarely Smart Enough to Account for People’s Feelings

Smart cities are efficient, but tech can’t account for human emotion. In the Mission District of San Francisco, officials are learning to bridge the gap.

Can technology solve cities? During economic booms, we tend to apply the philosophy of the zeitgeist too broadly. But what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.

The intersection of cities and technology is a perfect example. While well-applied technology and data analysis can vastly improve cities’ livability, relying on those tools to create a healthy, vibrant city is crazy. The tech sector’s focus on data collection and analysis locks them into a narrow definition of successful governance that focuses on the tactics of service provision while ignoring the bigger picture of community health. That messier, human side requires understanding a place’s values and personality, helping residents cope with change, and providing the infrastructure that supports the social fabric.

This springs to mind because I just read about Marten Kaevats, the National Digital Advisor of Estonia. Estonia has been busy these last few years redefining state bureaucracy in a wonderful way. They are the world’s first country to offer e-residency: You can become an Estonian E-citizen, with its specific but useful parcel of benefits, regardless of where you live.

Kaevats, a former architect, is restructuring the fundamental relationship between residents and the state bureaucracy. His goal is to make the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure invisible by utilizing a robust artificial intelligence program which will eliminate the typical touch points between people and institutions. By the end of this year, for example, he intends to implement “automated services across five key life events, such as new births, bereavements, and unemployment.” Have a new baby? She is automatically registered as a citizen. Lose a job? Your unemployment benefits automatically kick in.

Kavaets’ laudable work pushes perfecting service provision to its logical end. “The best service is something that you even didn’t notice you got,” he says. Government will fade to the background.

It’s hard not to agree with his sentiment. Who doesn’t want to minimize the amount of time they have to spend at the DMV or the Tax Assessor or the Building Permits desk? Or, worse, spending time unraveling a bureaucratic paperwork mess after the death of a family member?

But Kaevats’ rollout of tech philosophy has a massive blind spot. People are irrational, service provision is not the end all be all for cities, and the two are, sadly, inextricable. Service provision can’t be solved by AI any more than legislative and high-level politicking can.

A recent debate in the Mission District of San Francisco is a good example. The city has, over the past decade, been painting red “bus-only” lanes on major thoroughfares as the data shows that they speed bus travel times, thus improving traffic flow and shortening commutes. A recent proposal to expand that project into the Mission, one of the city’s most left-leaning, historically Latinx, and anti-gentrification neighborhoods, has run up against community pushback. As a local newspaper reported, longtime Mission shop owners—many Asian and Latinx—say that longtime customers who can no longer afford to live in the city have to drive in to shop and eat in the old neighborhood, but now they have no place to park because of the restricted lanes.

In their eyes, faster bus travel times comes at the cost of already displaced customers struggling to keep their daily rituals alive. Other residents believe the red bus lanes are harbingers of gentrification. They say the improved travel times prioritize the preferences of wealthy new arrivals as well-paid tech industry workers move into the district.

This is a confounding stumbling block for San Francisco and every other city that falls for the siren song of perfecting service provision. What’s an improvement for one group is not necessarily well received at all by another. Worse, in times of perceived crisis (e.g., the Mission residents who fear imminent displacement), some service improvements are rejected out of hand.

This turns the entire tech-based premise of successful city management on its head! Improving resident equality by leveling access to transit is one of the main arguments behind improving service provision, and here’s a group of determined residents taking that supposed equality benefit and tossing it to the curb. So much for solving cities.

The lesson here is not that using data technology and data to improve service provision is a bad idea. It’s to be careful not to get tricked into believing that technological improvement is the magic bullet that will resolve urban problems. Services may well be discrete and measurable, but people aren’t, and residents’ perception is their government’s reality. And in the current moment of rapid urban change and community dislocation, the gap between perception and measurable reality is growing, to the extent that neighbors can’t agree on the definition of an improvement.

What cities need in times like this is to remember that while better data may enable efficient service provision, there’s not only no firewall between data and subjective experience, they’re both soaked in the the kerosene of local politics. And as far as communities are concerned, service improvements are just another type of transition that threatens their identity. Change is hard, and humans, as a general rule, are terrible at it.

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