Can Smart Cities Be Equitable Cities?

Tech does not arrive in a city to save it. Instead, tech’s financial success depends on dismissing and exploiting existing disparities.

In December 2015, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced a competitive fund of $40 million for midsize cities, calling on localities across the country to reimagine urban mobility with smart technologies, such as driverless cars, smart streetlights, and data analytics. A few months later, Sidewalk Labs—a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company)—joined USDOT to work with cities on their proposals and test a software platform designed to diagnose and fix traffic issues. In June 2016, Columbus, Ohio, won the challenge and received the federal grant, as well as an additional $10 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s company Vulcan.

Columbus’s winning proposal included all the shiny new technologies that make up smart-city infrastructure: self-driving shuttles, electric vehicles, a web-based data platform, apps, and smart mobility hubs that offer Wi-Fi and digital kiosks. It also aimed to use smartness to alleviate inequality and poverty. Public officials pledged to connect the city’s poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods with better access to jobs, education, and medical care. At the time, Black babies in the city were twice as likely to die as white babies. “Smart Columbus” offered a bold vision: to “reduce infant mortality by 40 percent and to cut the health disparity gap in half by 2020.”

Since 2016, Columbus has made some strides toward becoming smart. It has continued securing funds and in-kind commitments from private industry; launched several pilot programs with navigation apps, autonomous shuttles, and electric vehicles; set up an open data platform; and launched a Smart Columbus Experience Center downtown, to showcase future technologies. Some other projects, such as a prenatal trip-assistance program and smart mobility hubs, have either stalled or are moving very slowly. COVID-19 has further disrupted Smart Columbus’s progress, and the city recently received an extension from the federal government to continue working on the initiative through the middle of 2021.

Columbus, Ohio, is hardly peculiar. Turning to technology to make cities better—in the name of economic growth, welfare, or safety—has a long history. But the current wave of smart urbanism emerged in the late 1990s and has spread far and wide. Many locales around the world have opened themselves up to transnational tech companies, becoming testing grounds for new infrastructures of connectivity and data collection—affecting roads, streetlights, public transportation, power lines, and water pipes—without effective oversight.

What happens to places as digital technologies shape them? Recent books on the various iterations of the smart city (predominantly limited to North America) explore this question. Sharon Zukin’s The Innovation Complex discusses New York City’s attempts to become a tech capital; Ben Green’s The Smart Enough City examines the tech-centric solutionism of several US municipalities; Germaine Halegoua’s The Digital City observes how digital technologies can, sometimes, reinvigorate urban places with new meanings. While revealing the structural conditions that enable the smart city’s persistence in time and repetition across space, each author carefully parses the material constraints, shifting bureaucratic norms, and everyday habits that solidify smartness on the ground.

The pervasive techno-utopianism evangelized by smart-city proponents is challenged in all three books. But they also help us understand the desires, hopes, fears, and anxieties that push the speculative present of the smart city into a durable future. Many municipalities hope smart technologies—and the wealth of Silicon Valley—can offer an innovative upgrade for decaying infrastructures, while tech giants looking to expand their playground find a perfect partner in austerity-ridden cities. Even some residents welcome the technological fixes in their neighborhoods, as city dwellers increasingly rely on being connected—to find jobs, access public services, or fight against oppression.

But tech does not arrive in the city to save it. On the contrary, the industry’s financial success, so far, has depended on ignoring existing disparities, if not outright exploiting them.

The smart city’s appetite for data is insatiable, and its expansion of algorithmic culture into urban neighborhoods is troublesome.

The prescription for how to become a smart city varies, but this vague, yet attractive, label makes many promises: to shed light on existing problems (data analytics to manage urban decay or public transportation), to anticipate new ones (predictive technologies of crime or potholes), and to respond to emerging issues in real time (disaster tracking on urban dashboards), while also, of course, propelling local economies (innovation districts). The path to smartness involves augmenting the city’s existing infrastructure with sensors, cameras, wireless technologies, and digital kiosks to collect rolling data about the city.

Applying artificial intelligence to urban problems is alluring to many resource-poor municipalities desperate to become the next Silicon Valley or, simply, to operate more efficiently. The smart city also opens up public infrastructure—in real as well as illusory ways—to a variety of groups who want to get involved in local politics. Activists armed with open data to document housing discrimination, local entrepreneurs populating coworking spaces to discover the next big urban tech app, and venture capitalists seeking to invest in new markets all use smart technologies to claim a stake in the future of the city.

The smart city’s appetite for data is insatiable, and its expansion of algorithmic culture into urban neighborhoods is troublesome. But we all unwittingly contribute to its making with our texts, photos, emojis, or likes.

Part of what makes the hazy promises of the smart city so appealing is the bargain they amount to: become smart, and innovation—the fairy dust of the new economy—will follow. Reformulating Richard Florida’s “creative city” for the digital age, proponents of the smart city suggest that if cities groom themselves properly, they can attract some of Silicon Valley’s tech talent and venture capital.

New York City—even though it was one of the winners of the competition to host Amazon’s second headquarters, in 2018—might not immediately look like a worthy rival to other tech hubs around the world.1 But it has long been hustling to become a destination for startups. Four Silicon Valley giants—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—already have offices in the city. The number of tech jobs in New York has grown 80 percent over the last decade, and the region ranks second to Silicon Valley when it comes to investment in tech startups.

Sociologist Sharon Zukin, who has studied New York City’s transformations for several decades, chronicles in The Innovation Complex how the Big Apple’s pursuit of innovation has reshaped not only its culture and politics, but also its urban landscape. Treading in the footsteps of Margaret Mead and C. Wright Mills, Zukin examines how tech has transformed the city’s local culture and power elite. Her research masterfully reveals the many layers of the “innovation complex”: a perfect coinage that captures both the city’s collective anxiety about controlling innovation and its spatial transformation to accommodate the aspirational workforce, businesses, and education.

The Innovation Complex structurally mimics a budding entrepreneur’s path toward scaling up: every chapter moves from micro to macro places in which code meets capital. Techies show up and show off at corporate-sponsored hackathons, blending work and play in a time of precarity. Tech meetups (“a science fair for adults”) cultivate a sense of community among the various ranks of the entrepreneurial pack and attempt to mobilize them as the collective voice of the digital city.

If tech has, indeed, its own power elite in New York City—and that’s a big if; Zukin doesn’t rush to crown tech leaders just yet—she finds these elites not at coworking spaces, incubators, or accelerators, but at the offices of venture-capital firms. She argues that a handful of tech-financial elites control most of the capital for new tech businesses while occupying seats in local governance bodies and successfully lobbying on behalf of the industry.

It is not just the administrations of Bloomberg or de Blasio; the city itself bends and twists to keep the innovation dream alive. Giant coworking buildings rise over Midtown, Google takes up the Meatpacking District, and downtown Brooklyn—formerly home to old industrial warehouses and affordable shopping malls—is now proclaimed the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, rife with creative spaces, manufacturing sites, and artisanal vendors. Rallied around building a citywide Tech Talent Pipeline, New York’s many universities trip over each other to become homes for future entrepreneurs.

This “academic capitalism,” as Zukin aptly calls it, is nowhere more concrete than the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, where, just as in other innovation districts in the city, the aspirations of the innovation complex become a “launching pad for real estate development.”

Despite all the rising coworking spaces, innovation studios, and tech campuses, Zukin points out that the city’s public infrastructures are still flailing, and none of these startups, or tech giants, have delivered the number of jobs or the amount of investment they once bragged about. She questions the role of government—would it be different if the federal and local governments were not the tech industry’s aides in its “double bubble in real estate and financial markets”?


Can Tech Ever Be Good?

By Johannes Lenhard

But governments do not just lubricate the tech industry’s foray into urban environments. They also embrace new technologies in their own hefty bureaucracies.

Municipalities turn to extensive data collection, algorithmic software, and artificial intelligence to guide policy decisions and optimize everyday operations. Automated or data-driven systems are expected to cut government costs, reduce the burden on public officials, and present creative solutions to longstanding issues. Every local government office, cash strapped or not, has a chief innovation or data officer these days, and often both, to lead data-driven interventions in the city. Academic institutions, federal grants, and big foundations spend significant funds to support the adoption of smart technologies inside city hall.

In other words, the ties among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are not just economic. These spheres are also mutually invested in the techniques of measuring, sorting, and counting.

Ben Green’s The Smart Enough City examines cities that welcome new technologies, chasing innovation to grapple with thorny urban issues in education, transportation, public health, or safety. His message to these cities is very clear: take off your “tech goggles.” That is, stop acting like technology alone is a panacea—make sure any solution that includes technology also recognizes the social and political stakes of the problem it professes to fix.

Critical scholars of technology or urban studies will not require much convincing to accept this argument, but anyone who has spent enough time with local government officials will immediately recognize the omnipresent techno-optimism against which Green writes.

Fiscally ill-equipped bureaucracies turn to techniques of smartness because that is often one surefire way to receive funding.

For every municipal project that “let[s] the technological tail wag the city dog,” Green offers several counterpossibilities, wherein local agencies choose to uphold public interest, civic engagement, and equity while still utilizing new technologies. Green’s examples in The Smart Enough City—from Chicago’s Array of Things project, which prioritizes residents’ privacy while installing sensor networks, to Boston’s New Urban Mechanics team, which uses data to advance civic good (rather than the other way around)—illustrate the importance of focusing on actual problems and institutional reforms instead of chasing after the flavor of the month in smart tech. His narrative is a eulogy for modest, incremental improvements that put the public interest ahead of the speculative possibilities for innovation or algorithmic solutions.

Yet the book underestimates the strategizing of public-minded city staff. For many public officials overwhelmed by the financial and organizational constraints in city hall, technology is often a vehicle to funnel attention and funds toward caring for cities that are already plagued by systemic racism, disinvestment, and deindustrialization. Fiscally ill-equipped bureaucracies turn to technologies and techniques of smartness because that is often one surefire way to receive funding, even from the federal government and big foundations.

Let’s go back to Columbus, Ohio, winner of the USDOT smart city challenge in 2016. Green rightly praises the city for proposing a smart transportation plan that centers not on autonomous vehicles but on connecting low-income residents to medical care, education, and jobs. When the city began to use the USDOT funds, after waiting a long while to access them, public officials found that barriers against mobility in the city’s long-impoverished neighborhoods ran deeper than they expected. Most residents, for example, needed WiFi access, reliable devices, and bank accounts if they wanted to access smart transport.

Four years on, Columbus has slowly moved the needle, with a 1.8 percent drop in infant mortality—but the city’s other racial disparities have barely budged (its prenatal trip-assistance program is still in development).2 Sometimes good intentions, careful use of technology, and even substantial funds are not enough, because local governments lack the regulatory capacity and organizational capabilities to solve systemic problems. In other words, even the “smart enough city” needs to recognize its governance limits.

Digging into the complexities and contradictions exposed by Zukin and Green, Germaine Halegoua’s The Digital City showcases, with capacious research, the diversity of ways in which people create new meanings of place with technology. Halegoua writes against the trope that computer technologies will eventually dissociate physical places from social environments. She argues that these technologies can, in fact, “re-place” the city, describing this process as “the use of digital media in cultivating a sense of place for oneself and others.”

By centering digital media in urban studies—and centering the urban environment in the study of digital media—Halegoua reveals how the city becomes desirable, familiar, knowable, or unique as it is refracted through mobile phones, locative media, urban dashboards, or even broadband networks. Digital technologies are not distracting us from place; they are enabling, linking, and amplifying new meanings.

Halegoua identifies this process of re-placing the city through digital media in a range of contexts and methods: from South Korea’s Songdo to Lawrence, Kansas, and from the top-down model of smart cities (“intentional places”) to more grassroots efforts. Her analysis of the smart city departs from those of Zukin and Green in its close examination of the role of technologists and planners. She shows how these so-called experts struggle not only to put people first, but also to imagine the smart city as a place with which people build bonds.

The disconnect between techies’ senses of place and residents’ experiences extends to the case study of Kansas City, which became Google Fiber’s first test bed. Civic leaders worked alongside Google in a deliberate attempt to use Fiber as a step toward building a “connected” city. But, as Halegoua demonstrates, a considerable portion of the population did not see themselves in this newly invented city, nor did they feel invited and empowered. Connectivity infrastructures are critical in most places, but lighting up new fiber cables does not fix the problems of neighborhoods long marked by housing discrimination, aggressive policing, and under-resourced schools.

Halegoua then turns to more bottom-up models of digitally mediated cities, as she zooms in on the everyday experiences of residents. Examining their uses of mobile maps and digital navigation systems, she shows how people gain a sense of control and become familiar with places that might otherwise be strange, foreign, or anxiety inducing. In residents’ status updates, photos, and other traces on locative and social media, she finds a polyvalent expression of belonging, storytelling, and representation.

All these ways of articulating and engaging with the city through digital media can spark new creative placemaking projects. Halegoua cites one example in which residents gather in public spaces and navigate the city through interactive video games, and another in which digital kiosks appear in a neighborhood to document the lives of its past and present residents.

But organizations that program and fund creative placemaking initiatives still view digital media as “displacing and distracting,” she argues. This narrow view undermines the creative and civic relationships that artists and community organizers forge to develop a sense of place using new technologies. Halegoua’s expansive discussion of re-placing the city invites the reader to rethink the political and poetic possibilities of digital placemaking along with other possibilities co-opted by capitalism and heedless searches for innovation.


Urban Renewal and Its Discontents

By Samuel Zipp

City building in the 21st century—as these three books demonstrate—does not deal just with land, buildings, or people, but also with venture capital, big-data analytics, and digital interfaces. Even though the smart city has so far failed to live up to its hype—sometimes quietly, sometimes spectacularly—COVID-19 presents yet another opportunity for techies to reimagine urban environments.

In the midst of the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo invited Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, to chair a 15-member commission tasked with designing the rebuild of New York. Public officials, unable or unwilling to invest in keeping citizens safe, grasp at straws and turn to big tech. Instead of investing in public welfare, their knee-jerk reaction is to launch aggressive surveillance technologies in cities and prioritize collecting data over protecting public health.

Yet many Americans who tried to create a new sense of place from home (while essential workers undertook the labor of keeping cities going) came out to protest in early June, after watching on their screens the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police. Precisely that recognition of racial inequality—inequality that is the result of years of racial violence, segregation, and surveillance—is what’s sorely missing from the analyses of the smart city.

Zukin, Green, and Halegoua are all aware of the discriminatory implications of the smart city, but these implications were not centered in their work. The current moment is an important reminder that we should incorporate the ideas of thinkers such as Ruha Benjamin and Simone Browne into critiques of the smart city and recognize that smartness is designed to be a system of racial discrimination (particularly anti-Black discrimination).

This will open up a new set of questions to examine unfolding geographies of inequality as the tech-driven city expands: How do Silicon Valley’s whiteness and oppressive labor conditions reiterate and reconfigure racist structures in urban environments? How does the municipal fixation on innovation intersect with racial capitalism, which accumulates wealth by reproducing social and spatial differences? How can smart technologies reinscribe and, in some cases, subvert the politics of discrimination on the ground, in software design, and on dashboards?

These questions will push us to go beyond simply discussing the limits of privacy or expecting the tech industry to make ethical decisions about what kind of cities we want to live in together. Can a city become smart and equitable? Not before we dismantle Silicon Valley’s exploitative tactics and carceral techniques.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleranicon

  1. Amazon announced its search for a new second headquarters in 2017, and several cities in North America bent over backward to woo the tech giant. The company selected Arlington, Virginia, and Long Island City, New York, in 2018. But following grassroots resistance against the massive subsidies New York offered Amazon, the company pulled its planned HQ2 from the city, to most residents’ delight.
  2. Ohio Department of Health, Office of Vital Statistics, “Infant Mortality Report, Franklin County, 2011–2020,” May 24, 2020.
Featured image: San Francisco at Night (2019). Photograph by Denys Nevozhai / Unsplash