Foss: Disaster in Iowa has technological lessons for Schenectady with ‘smart cities’

Schenectady Smart City Advisory Commission Chairman Mark Little talks about the program in 2016.
Schenectady Smart City Advisory Commission Chairman Mark Little talks about the program in 2016.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

It didn’t take long to identify the culprit responsible for the debacle in Iowa. 

A shoddy smartphone app, touted as an innovation that would gather and tabulate results more efficiently, caused an epic and unprecedented meltdown, throwing the Democratic caucuses into complete chaos. 

It was a disaster — and a cautionary tale. 

We’re often told that technology will solve all our problems and usher in a more equitable, better-managed society, where data drives decision-making and digital tools make life better for everyone. 

Indeed, this is the appeal of “smart cities” — municipalities that are said to use tech in bold and transformative ways. 

The mess in the Hawkeye State got me thinking about Schenectady, which has branded itself a smart city under Mayor Gary McCarthy. 

The mayor claims that leveraging technology will improve the day-to-day lives of residents, but this vision warrants skepticism. 

It doesn’t account for the everyday glitches that those of us who deal with the internet on a daily basis are accustomed to, or the unintended consequences bound to result from deploying new technology. 

Proponents depict smart cities as Utopian wonderlands where everything runs smoothly. 

But what if the reality is more like — gulp — Iowa? 

That’s a question to keep in mind as Schenectady forges ahead with its smart city initiatives, which are still in the beginning stages. 

I’ve never believed these initiatives will live up to expectations.

As a prescient 2016 Boston Globe opinion piece titled “Apps Don’t Make a City Smart,” observed, “… 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.” 

Now, there’s no denying that technology can be helpful. 

But we need to remember that it’s not a panacea, and that it won’t replace well-trained staffs, good leadership and knowledgeable people.

One Schenectady smart city initiative, the city’s online snow plow tracker, is a good example of tech’s limited problem-solving capabilities. 

This website can tell you where the city’s plows are when it snows, but how useful is that, really? It doesn’t clear the streets of snow — a major complaint during December’s big snowstorm. 

One friend of mine observed that checking the app over and over again only confirmed what he already knew, which is that all of the streets in his neighborhood had been plowed at least once except the ones in front of his house.   

You can certainly snark at whether a city that hasn’t mastered snow plowing or pothole filling deserves to call itself a smart city. 

But I’d urge people to go further, and question whether officials’ faith in technology is warranted. 

The disaster in Iowa suggests that it isn’t — and that it will take more than new apps and faster digital networks to make the world a better place. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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