The Case for “Dumb” Cities

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Robison Wells
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High-tech “smart cities” are becoming all the rage over the last twenty years, but there is currently pushback on many fronts saying that what we need are “dumber” cities—ditching the data and embracing the lessons learned over the past millennia.

Ever since everyone got a smart phone in their back pocket, city managers and mayors have been looking to create smarter cities that interact more with the average Joe and his phone. It makes things dynamic and attractive to businesses, streamlining services and optimizing efficiency and keeping citizens face down in their phone—all in the name of progress.

While there’s no set definition of a smart city, high-tech progress wants to use cameras and sensors to monitor everyone and everything, from traffic lights to garbage cans to carpool lanes. In a Google-related experiment in Toronto, a 12 acre section of the city was made as smart as it could be—and it’s facing massive backlash. One report found the plans “frustratingly abstract” and an investor from the the US tech industry warned that Google shouldn’t be trusted with the data, turning the area into “surveillance capitalism.”

There’s also the problem of the inexorable march of technology, and what will be done when a tech, which was cutting edge one year, will be out of date three years later, requiring constant upkeep, or, at worst, returning the city back to the stone age. And, as Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto pointed out: “If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller.”

Instead, she calls for “excellent dumb cities. For many of our challenges we don’t need new technologies and new ideas, we need the will, foresight, and courage to use the best of the old ideas.”

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