The Smart Enough City: Avoiding the Myopia of Tech Goggles

At this juncture in human history, few issues should concern us more than our relationship to digital technologies. They are shaping our brains, influencing our values, and changing the nature of human discourse—not always in good ways. When we determine our relationship to any new technology, there is a middle ground between the doe-eyed technophile and the intransigent Luddite. Only fools dwell on the extremes of this continuum; wisdom lies somewhere in between. When developing and managing cities—those places where most of us live our lives—wisdom definitely demands something less technophilic and more human than the self-serving visions of “smart cities” that technology vendors are promoting today. Ben Green makes this case compellingly in his thoughtful new book The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future.

In the first few pages of the book, Ben asks the following questions about cities:

Nobody likes traffic, but if eliminating it requires removing people from streets, what kinds of cities are we poised to create?

Nobody wants crime, but if preventing it means perpetuating discriminatory practices, what kinds of cities are we poised to create?

Everybody desires better public services, but if deploying them entails setting up corporate surveillance nodes throughout urban centers, what kinds of cities are we poised to create?

As a whole, the book is Ben’s response.

This book is about why, far too often, applications of technology in cities produce adverse consequences—and what we must do to ensure that technology helps create a more just and equitable urban future.

The term “smart city” has emerged as shorthand for cities that focus on the latest technologies as the solution to human problems. If you buy into this term, you believe that failing to implement the latest technologies is dumb, and who wants to live in a dumb city? It isn’t that simple, however. Technologies indeed offer benefits, but only good technologies, and only when they’re designed well and applied wisely. Framing all of a city’s problems as solvable through technologies ignores the complexities that successful urban development and governance must understand and address. Technology vendors love to promote this reductionist vision of smart cities, but those who actually work in the trenches to make cities livable, just, and equitable recognize a nuanced interplay of forces and concerns that must be considered and coordinated.

Although represented as utopian, the smart city in fact represents a drastic and myopic reconceptualization of cities into technology problems. Reconstructing the foundations of urban life and municipal governance in accordance with this perspective will lead to cities that are superficially smart but under the surface are rife with injustice and inequity. The smart city threatens to be a place where self-driving cars have the run of downtowns and force out pedestrians, where civic engagement is limited to requesting services through an app, where police use algorithms to justify and perpetuate racist practices, and where governments and companies surveil public space to control behavior.

Technology can be a valuable tool to promote social change, but a technology-driven approach to social progress is doomed from the outset to provide limited benefits or beget unintended negative consequences.

Ben calls this problematic perspective “technology goggles,” or simply “tech goggles.”

At their core, tech goggles are grounded in two beliefs: first, that technology provides neutral and optimal solutions to social problems, and second, that technology is the primary mechanism to social change. Obscuring all barriers stemming from social and political dynamics, they cause whoever wears them to perceive every ailment of urban life as a technology problem and to selectively diagnose only issues that technology can solve…The fundamental problem with tech goggles is that neat solutions to complex social issues are rarely, if ever, possible.

Technologies are not neutral and objective; they incorporate values and strive to achieve particular outcomes that can undermine the livable and equitable cities that we desire. Technologies, in and of themselves, are never the solution. Only when good technologies are well designed and used wisely can they contribute to real solutions.

The smart city is thus founded on a false dichotomy and blinds us to the broader possibilities of technology and social change. We become stuck asking a meaningless, tautological question—is a smart city preferable to a dumb city?—instead of debating a more fundamental one: does the smart city represent the urban future that best fosters democracy, justice, and equity?

I believe that the answer is no—that our essential task is to defy the logic of tech goggles and recognize our agency to pursue an alternative vision: the “Smart Enough City.” It is a city free from the influence of tech goggles, a city where technology is embraced as a powerful tool to address the needs of urban residents, in conjunction with other forms of innovation and social change, but is not valued for its own sake or viewed as a panacea. Rather than seeing the city as something to optimize, those who embrace the Smart Enough City place their policy goals at the forefront and, recognizing the complexity of people and institutions, think holistically about how to better meet their needs.

Throughout this book, Ben examines the many ways in which technologies can impact and either assist or harm urban life. He dives deeply into specific issues regarding transportation, police work, civic engagement, and the provision of human services. He examines specific technologies, including autonomous vehicles, sensors, and machine-learning algorithms. He makes his case with example after example, both of smart city failures and smart enough city successes. This story features some bad actors, but quite a few heroes as well. I never imagined that I would find a book about cities so engaging. Even though the book focuses on the ways that technologies are shaping cities—a topic that I haven’t given much thought in the past—the concerns and potential responses that it considers apply much more broadly to technologies and their use. Those of us who are work as technology professionals should heed this book’s wise counsel.

When Ben first approached me and asked if I’d be willing to review his book, I was somewhat apprehensive. As someone who has been writing about information technologies for many years, I am frequently approached by authors with similar requests. More often than not, I don’t end up liking their books well enough to recommend them, and I take no pleasure in telling authors why I made that choice. For this reason, when I encounter a book like The Smart Enough City, I’m relieved. More than relieved, I’m happy to recommend them to my readers. In this particular case, I’m more than happy, I’m thrilled, because this book is an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written treatise on an important topic. The choices that we make about technologies today will fundamentally shape our future. It’s up to us to shape a future that will provide benefit, not oppress.

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