Smart cities: no app substitutes for public engagement and responsive leadership


Cities from Amsterdam to Adelaide, from Boston to Bangalore, and San Francisco to Seoul are teaming up with big businesses like IBM, Siemens, Cisco, GE, and Google in a frenzied dash to become “smart cities.” They’re rolling out sensors for everything from street lights to trash cans. Homes are being wired up with smart meters and smart appliances that feed real-time data back to public utilities. Buses, cars, and bike-shares have GPS or radio-frequency identification that helps to alert users of when the next bus will arrive, as well as matching car and bike-share users to a the nearest Zipcar or Hubway bike.

But our current smart-city techno fetish rides roughshod across the public realm. It encourages the belief that there’s always “an app for that” — that we can address deep-seated, structural urban problems through business-led technological innovation and somehow sidestep the messiness of inclusive politics.

Take Boston’s perpetual traffic problems. It was a crisis, the snowbound 2015 Super Bowl parade, that forced the city to partner with the Google-owned traffic app Waze. The popular app, which has nearly a half-million Boston-based users, provides real-time traffic conditions. The city began its formal relationship by providing Waze with the details of the Patriots’ parade route. Now the city pipes traffic information not only directly to the app but also to the municipal Traffic Management Center, where hundreds of signalized intersections are controlled and programmed in response to changing traffic conditions.

This may seem like a great idea, and it makes people feel good about a public-private partnership based on information technology. But as with much crisis-driven policymaking, it merely represents a Band Aid slapped over a problem that still requires brave new political thinking and much-needed infrastructure investment. Rather than using the latest app to help manage traffic flow within an overburdened system, Boston — perhaps more than any other US city — needs a wider, well-resourced, truly integrated package of measures designed to actually decrease the volume of cars in the city. Failing to do this will ultimately undermine quality of life and regional character.

Smart technology can indeed help cities provide integrated public transport ticketing, with seamless transitions across train, bus, bicycle or car share. It can enable smart payments for people receiving public benefits, more effective management of parking spaces, and more efficient bike-share schemes. We could learn from Copenhagen and Amsterdam, cities that have reconfigured traffic patterns to allow for unfettered flow of bikes along streets and through intersections.

Other good-for-Boston approaches can be seen in Stockholm, Singapore, and London, where so-called congestion pricing confronts traffic density by levying a direct charge to discourage the use of private vehicles in the downtown core, especially during times of peak demand. Since its inception in London in 2003, there has been a 10 percent reduction in traffic, a massive 40 percent decrease in traffic accidents (and roughly the same reduction in those killed or seriously injured), and a 13 percent decrease in CO2 emissions — all while generating roughly $400 million per year in new revenue, which is earmarked for transportation improvements.

Imagine freeing up Boston’s road space, making our streets safer, and getting revenue for protected cycle lanes, bus priority measures, improved sidewalks, and possibly the much-vaunted bus rapid transit network. This will not come about through “smart” city partnerships but through political will. There’s no app that substitutes for public engagement and responsive leadership.

London also holds a warning about the unintended consequences that can be triggered when the smart city concept is adopted almost as an ideology, something that’s good for its own sake. This problem is epitomized by the neighborhood known as Tech City in the fashionable Shoreditch district. It was intended as a hub for tech innovation and startups, but has turned into merely an annex for London’s biggest players, dominated by Google, Cisco, McKinsey & Co., and Intel. Just up the road in Tottenham, the rebranding of warehouses as “artistic quarters” has displaced low-rent communities in favor of lofts for bankers and financial speculators. Here in Boston and Cambridge, city authorities do well to encourage tech parks and seek to attract clean technology startups and those cultural industries highly prized by “creatives.” But this should not be done outside of a robust political strategy to protect and invest in affordable housing, basic services, and infrastructure.

Innovations that help city life become more socially inclusive, like community gardens, edible parks, repair cafes, tool libraries, and time-banks, typically arise as a result of activist movements in historically rundown districts. In Roxbury and Dorchester, after tortuous political negotiations in which big business was notably absent, activists successfully propelled adoption of Article 89 in December 2013, encouraging commercial agriculture in Boston. Since then, we’ve seen community actors like City Growers, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Haley House Bakery Café, the Food Project, Dorchester Community Food Co-op, and CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics) help create an emergent local food economy with an eye toward sustainability and social justice.

The mistaken notion that only a business-led, competitive, wired, smart city can survive in the cutthroat global market is resulting in growing inequality and declining social capital. The problem is not just a failure of popular political participation — as ordinary citizens remain excluded from decision-making — but of imagination. Politicians refuse to intervene in markets except at the behest of corporate capital. More important to city success than smart street lights and digital surveillance is the need to use smart technology to enable skill sharing, citizen participation, management of shared services — in short, the general well-being of citizens.

To be truly smart, cities of the future should focus on developing democratic, participatory visions that harness smart technology to a shared agenda. Let’s create a genuinely shared urban commons and an inclusive public realm — not a place where quick adoption of smart technologies just reinforces the dominant-yet-dumb approaches of competition, enclosure, and division.

Julian Agyeman and Duncan McLaren.

This Opinion originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 14 2016 as Apps don’t make a city smart


  1. Ed Bourque on August 18, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    This is an excellent post and an often forgotten concept– Responsive government. It’s urban governance, essentially.

    I’ve seen this with urban planning here in Massachusetts and I’ve seen in in African cities where they are trying to use smart monitoring for water quality, water source functionality, etc.

    The problem often isn’t that government doesn’t know that something doesn’t work. It’s that they don’t fix it!

    Heck, didn’t a bunch of people know about that lead in the water problem in Flint, Michigan for a long, long time before they acted on anything?!

Leave a Comment