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Foss: Smart Cities questions and concerns

Foss: Smart Cities questions and concerns

Foss: Smart Cities questions and concerns
Schenectady Mayor Gary R. McCarthy announces his Smart City Advisory Commission in 2016.

Smart City. 

It's got a nice ring to it. 

Especially if the alternative is Dumb City.

Or Not Very Smart City. 

Certainly, criticizing Schenectady's effort to transform itself into a Smart City feels a bit churlish. Being smart is desirable. Being dumb isn't. What could the objection possibly be? 

For the record, I'm not objecting to Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy's Smart City initiative. 

But I do have some questions and concerns. 

A Smart City is a tech-savvy city, deploying new technology to address age-old headaches such as potholes and traffic congestion. A sophisticated digital infrastructure collects data in real time, enabling officials to identify and respond to problems more quickly. Residents reap the benefits of living in a better-managed, more efficient city. 

It's a utopian vision and, like all utopian visions, it's easy to be seduced by it 

What remains to be seen is whether Smart Cities can actually deliver on their promise -- and what sorts of unintended consequences will result from entrusting so much of city governance to the tech sector. 

For a good example of what can happen when a city strives to be smart, look no further than Toronto, where a plan to build a development "from the Internet up" has generated fierce resistance. 

Called Quayside, the development is the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet. It has a number of futuristic touches, such as robots that deliver packages through underground tunnels and heated sidewalks that melt snow. 

The backlash to the project stems from Quayside's massive data-collecting-capabilities, and questions about how it will be used. 

In an op-ed in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, privacy advocate Bianca Wylie wrote that smart cities "offer tech companies opportunities to generate profits by assuming functions traditionally carried out by the public sector and by selling cities technologies they may or may not need." 

She added, "Should the insights from our data be given away or sold to a company so it can use it to build services it will sell back to us (or to others)? Is the intellectual property related to this data something our cities and residents may want to hold onto and manage -- or perhaps license?" 

A New York Times article on Smart Cities echoed these concerns, noting that while "hundreds of cities, large and small, have adopted or begun planning smart cities projects ... experts say cities frequently lack the expertise to understand privacy, security and financial arrangements of such arrangements." 

Schenectady is still in the early stages of becoming a Smart City, but I haven't heard much discussion of privacy. 

That needs to change, and a good Smart Cities plan will include measures to protect residents from unnecessary surveillance and misuse of data. Residents also need to know that the city is doing everything it can to protect its Smart City technology from hackers. 

My guess is that most residents have only the vaguest notion of what the Smart Cities initiative is about, in large part because there's been very little public engagement. 

The Smart Cities initiative is McCarthy's signature project, but he has yet to present it to the public or seek input from residents on it in any meaningful way. 

The mayor should consider holding a series of town halls to explain what Smart Cities is all about to his constituents, answer their questions and get feedback. 

Thus far, the public has mostly been excluded from a project that will have an impact on everyone who lives in Schenectady. That's unacceptable -- but there's still time to open up the process and make it more inclusive. 

Smart Cities projects are often portrayed -- by their supporters, at least -- as silver bullets that will solve every problem a city has. 

But technology can only do so much. 

You still need trained staff to manage it, and boots on the ground to address the problems it identifies. 

If you don't have good governance and personnel, you're still going to struggle to provide residents basic services in a timely fashion. 

When I talk to residents about what they want from the city, it's usually pretty simple. They want better roads and sidewalks, cleaner parks and streets and crackdowns on negligent property owners. 

Smart Cities promises a lot. 

But whether it will deliver is another question. 

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

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