A photo of several people in a city starting at their smartphones.
Plugged in: The ubiquity of smartphones means that regular consumers feature more heavily in the "smart cities" promises of today. Mark Lennihan/AP

Companies like Google, Uber, or Facebook aren’t built to fix society. That includes cities.

In 2018, a hailstorm of data privacy revelations at Facebook shook down the tech giant’s self-branding as a do-gooder enterprise. When the stakes were high, the company repeatedly prioritized growth over the security of its 2.2 billion users, news reports revealed. Facebook’s reckoning rightly grabbed the world’s attention in 2018, but the perils of private tech promising public good were also playing out in the burgeoning arena of “smart cities.”

The smart-city concept was born of the last recession, when the IT behemoths that dominated generations past, like IBM and Cisco, rushed into budget-crunched city halls, software in hand, pitching harried administrators ways to run electricity, water, and transportation systems faster, cheaper, and with data-driven “insights.” Now, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, many of the smart-city solutions proffered on the expo circuit are more familiar to regular consumers than you might realize.

Look no further than Uber and Lyft, which have promised to un-clog congested roads and bring down carbon emissions through shared, on-demand rides. In reality, they appear to have grown demand for vehicle travel, and as such, a wealth of new research—a wave of it this year—implicates them in the thickening traffic and rising emissions that cities are lately experiencing. Ride-hailing vehicles aren’t the primary source of those problems; private passenger vehicles are. But Uber and Lyft’s model is built on their artificially low prices, subsidized by gobs of venture capital. So far, despite all those shared rides on Uber Pool and Lyft Line and many pilot “partnerships” with public transit agencies, that model has proven incompatible with the cleaner, faster transportation networks everybody wants. (By the way, there is an incredible transportation technology that would probably get us closer. It has four wheels, three letters, and it rhymes with fuss.)

To take another transportation example, look at self-driving cars, which come with twin promises from the auto and tech industries to save lives by eliminating imperfect and inattentive human drivers. Sorry to hammer on Uber, but this year, one of their self-driving Volvos struck and killed a pedestrian on a brightly lit road in Tempe, Arizona. In addition to relying on problematic software, Uber had ditched safer testing practices for its robotic cars by having their human backup drivers work solo. In essence, that made their workers all the more likely to fall victim to the same fatal distractions that cause regular crashes every year, a contributing factor in the Tempe killing. That’s not to say self-driving vehicles won’t get better and safer—they will, and they are—but the Uber crash showed just how far off most industry players are from meaningfully replacing most vehicle trips. The timetable to self-driving proliferation “will be longer than you think,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik told a gathering of state governors over the summer.

That episode also raised the potential for bias in the algorithms operating the vehicle. If the car couldn’t see a woman and her bicycle on a well-lit, wide roadway, what was it supposed to see? In the “smarter” urban future run by self-driving cars, will pedestrians and cyclists have to abide by machine rules to move safely? An engineer might say that sounds like more rationalized streetscape, perhaps. And transitioning to an AV-centric transportation world might be good for the companies building the cars and the brains that steer them—something akin to the urban highway boom of the 1960s. For society, though, it sounds more restrictive.

The death in Tempe harkened to the idea of “techno-chauvinism,” or that technology is the silver-bullet fix for incredibly complex social issues that may in fact be better addressed via lower-tech alternatives. Self-driving cars may be marketed as a way to eliminate road fatalities, but there are other ways of doing this that don’t include automation. The fatal incident highlighted a few opportunities for Tempe, including a need for safer street design with more crosswalks, bike lanes, and sidewalks, and better safeguards to prevent digital distractions.

Finally, there’s the biggest smart city story of the year: the Sidewalk Labs neighborhood-building project in Toronto. Here was the first full year of action on Alphabet’s long-envisioned urban cluster of the future, a community “built from the internet up,” with a full detail of smart-city features: prefab buildings with hyper-efficient energy systems, sensor-enabled pavement and sidewalks that sense traffic loads and melt snow, and autonomous shuttles and freight networks. Beneath all of this is to be a “digital layer” that harvests data in public and private spaces and feeds it back to a centralized map.

Partnering with a government-appointed, nonprofit development agency, Sidewalk Labs promised a transparent process of community engagement throughout this first year of project planning. But what unfolded in Toronto—against the backdrop of major data privacy revelations at Facebook and Google, not to mention data breaches at Marriott, Panera, Lord and Taylor, and countless other firms—included a foundational contract that went undisclosed, a cagey stance by the company on its plans for data use, strings of resignations by project advisors, and most recently, a government audit of Waterfront Toronto (the government proxy) that resulted in the firing of three key leaders and raised grave concerns about how much control had been ceded to the Google sister company. By now, the project seems to be raising more conversation about how not to go about building a smarter city than the reverse.   

The blame doesn’t lie solely at the feet of the companies, though. In Toronto, as in Arizona, as in many cities where ride-hailing is now the norm, public leaders have mightily struggled under the task of working with or regulating private actors with safety, environmental efficiency, and transparency in mind.

That story is beginning to turn around with ride-hailing. This year, New York City put a cap on new ride-hailing vehicles; Washington, D.C., Chicago, and others also slapped new taxes on the trips which feed revenue into transit budgets, among other things. Arizona has passed new safety regulations for AV testing, and other states took the initiative to create laws where there were not before. But while some parts of the country have data privacy protections in place, the framework for shielding citizens from unwanted data use and exposure is patchy at best, weak compared to the EU’s new sweeping GDPR laws.

Put simply, despite the grand social promises, and even with good intentions, tech companies entering into public space don’t always act with the presumed interests of the public in mind. They’re not really supposed to; at the end of the day, their missions are driven by shareholders, not altruism. There’s nothing wrong with that basic fact. But it’s one that seems to get lost in the fog of whatever a “smart city” is. In 2019, when dealing with software, cities should upgrade with care.

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