All Tech Considered
12:03 am
Thu July 11, 2013

Tech-Savvy Cities May Be 'Smart,' But Are They Wise?

Originally published on Thu July 18, 2013 1:52 pm

This summer, NPR's Cities Project has been looking at how cities around the world are solving problems using new technologies. And though there's great promise in many of these "smart" city programs, New York University's Anthony Townsend remains skeptical.

Townsend, whose book Smart Cities is due out in October, tells NPR's David Greene about the causes, benefits and potential dangers of the smart city boom.


Interview Highlights

On what caused the smart city boom

"In 2008, we had a number of things happen. The world became 50 percent urban for the first time, and we're on track by the end of the century that most of the world's population will be living in cities, something like 8 billion people, which is about double the number of people that live in cities today. So in the next 100 years, we're going to basically build as much urban fabric as we've built in all of human history. We also saw the number of things connected to the Internet surpass the number of people that are connected to the Internet.

"Now the other thing that happened in 2008 is the recession. And companies like IBM and Cisco in almost an instant saw their corporate customer base disappear and a new government customer base start to grow as stimulus programs came online. And so they've very aggressively launched a marketing campaign — pilots and prototypes — in thousands of cities around the world."

On what motivates city governments to adopt new technology

"A lot of cities are turning to the technology industry — to companies like IBM and Cisco and Siemens — to weave these new technologies into their systems of government in order to demonstrate to their constituents that they're doing something to try to tackle this growing chaos of rapidly growing cities all around the world."

On Rio de Janeiro's Operations Center, which digitally unites all the city's functions into one facility

"I think we have to take this case with a great deal of skepticism. The technology that runs this operation center really isn't doing all that much. It's basically just bringing a few video feeds into a central room where, you know, the government can take pictures and say that they're doing a lot to keep the city under control."

On the dangers of smart city technology

"Probably the most important one is that the way that these projects are structured is that these companies don't just build a system like you would build a road, like a contractor would build a road, and then hand it over to the city to operate and maintain. They stay involved, and, you know, in many cases with technologies, like cloud computing, the infrastructure that's providing a service to that city — say, you know, running the traffic signals — may not actually be physically located in that city. It may not even be in the same country. And so, essentially a city is outsourcing its brains."

On whether using technology to run a city more efficiently is a good thing

"It's a wonderful thing, and I think it's really our only hope right now, given the challenges we face in the coming century around climate change [and] mass urbanization all over the planet. What I'm trying to do with my work is just to get us to confront those risks, because over the last five years, you know, since these big technology companies really started this push towards building smart cities and selling smart cities, there hasn't been a really robust discussion about the risks."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This summer we've been bringing you the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is an old city but we have the latest technologies.

GREENE: Around the world, so-called Smart Cities are seeking technological solutions to urban problems.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Take the operation center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It digitally unites all of the city's functions in one huge facility.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have the police, we have the traffic engineer, we have an agency that knows everything about mountains in this area. We have the gas company, the light company, all of them together here.

MONTAGNE: Sounds great in theory but there are critics.

GREENE: Among them, Anthony Townsend from New York University. He's author of an upcoming book called "Smart Cities" and he fears that if lots of services are tied to computers in one building, the ripple effects could be far and wide if something goes wrong there. He said that Operation Center in Rio may seem more impressive than it really is.

ANTHONY TOWNSEND: I think we have to take this case with a great deal of skepticism. The technology that runs this operation center really isn't doing all that much. It's basically just bringing a few video feeds into a central room where, you know, the government can take pictures and say they're doing a lot to keep the city under control.

A lot of cities are turning to technology industry to companies like IBM and Cisco and Siemens, to weave these new technologies into their systems of government, in order to demonstrate to, you know, their constituents that they're doing something to try to tackle this growing chaos of rapidly growing cities all around the world.

GREENE: How much is a corporation like IBM pushing for cities to do this, because I'm sure there's a lot of money involved for them?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, basically in 2008 the world became 50 percent urban for the first time. And we're on track by the end of the century that most of the world's population will be living in cities, something like eight billion people, which is about double the number that live in cities today. So in the next 100 years, we're going to build as much urban fabric as we've built in all of human history.

We also saw the number of things connected to the Internet surpass the number of people that are connected to the Internet.

Now, the other thing that happened in 2008 is the recession. Companies like IBM and Cisco, almost in an instant saw their corporate customer base disappear and a new government customer base start to grow, as stimulus programs came online. And so they've very aggressively launched a marketing campaign - pilots and prototypes - in thousands of cities around the world, to educate mayors and civic leaders about the potential of information technology to address urban problems and, you know, citizens in general.

GREENE: If you are worried about companies like IBM, like Siemens, like Cisco - these companies that are going in and running this technology in cities - what is the worry? What is the danger?

TOWNSEND: Probably the most important one is that the way that these projects are structured, is that these companies don't just build a system like a contractor would build a road, and then hand it over to the city to operate and maintain. They stay involved and, you know, in many cases the infrastructure that's providing a service to that city - say, you know, running the traffic signals - may not actually be physically located in that city. It may not even be in the same country.

And so, essentially a city is outsourcing its brains to a company that could be locating those brains anywhere in the world, and potentially outside of that government's jurisdiction.

GREENE: Is there an argument that the pluses outweigh the minuses? Sure, there are a lot of concerns about what this is doing. But, you know, using more technology, making a city run more efficiently, all of that, on balance, is a good thing.

TOWNSEND: Oh, it's a wonderful thing. And I think it's really our only hope right now, given the challenges we face in the coming century around climate change, mass urbanization all over the planet.

What I'm trying to do with my work is just to get us to confront those risks. Because over the last five years, you know, since these big technology companies really started this push towards building smart cities and selling smart cities, there hasn't been a really robust discussion about the risks. And I think many of these technologies, the unintended consequences actually end up dominating their legacy rather than the intended ones.

And so, what I'm trying to do is just get us to really think through what might go wrong.

GREENE: Anthony, thanks so much for talking to us.

TOWNSEND: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Anthony Townsend is with New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation. This book, "Smart Cities," comes out in the fall. And this morning at 11 AM Eastern/8 Pacific, you can join him and other experts on smart cities in a Twitter discussion. Follow the hashtag NPRCities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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