January 16, 2014

Techno-utopians.  It wasn’t long ago that we were being told that digital Information and Communication Technologies would solve nearly every problem and transform the world in wonderful ways, small and big.  Cars would be routed around congestion; government would more accurately chart population needs. Although there were some efforts to broaden the scope of “smart” to include people as well as systems, the vision was primarily about technology.

Most of us now understand that the promised land of technology-enabled paradise isn’t going to happen, or at least that change – even transformation – is not the same as progress, that making things faster or more efficient or more connected or more data-rich is not the same as improving the quality of life.  In fact, we’ve seen numerous ways in which digital technologies –when they actually work – have made things worse, or at least simply recreated existing hierarchies, inequalities, and problems.  And there are good reasons to worry that the pursuit of “big data” capabilities will be even more dangerous – as low-income recipients of social services often already experience.

The push for Smart Cities drew much of its original energy from the techno-utopian well.  It was popularized by multi-national technology firms seeking new markets.  If we’re lucky, the wave of big ideas has crested and we’ve moved into an era of more modest, decentralized, and do-able – one good example being Boston’s own “New Urban Mechanics” program.

Technology is just a tool.  And selecting the appropriate tool, an appropriate technology, requires first deciding what you are trying to use it for – not just the immediate task but the deeper social and political conditions.  Good technology is developed or adopted in order to strengthen core values:  democracy, community, equality, individual dignity.  Quality of life, in transportation and everything else, results from the successful cultivation of these qualities. 


Digital Eden

The vision was that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) would aggregate knowledge through crowd sourcing, wiki’s, and unlimited access to the world’s information.  Public education (and medicine) would be transformed into individualized services.  Rural areas and underdeveloped countries would become as economically vibrant as urban centers and the G-7, leading to a prosperous, innovation-based globalized economy much more resistant to war.  Our streets would be congestion- and crime-free.  Our vehicles wouldn’t pollute and we’d never get lost again.  The Internet would make censorship impossible, make everyone a content producer, and facilitate grass-roots mobilization.  The world was about to be transformed by the nearly-inevitable expansion of entrepreneurial-driven high tech that would disruptively force a paradigm shift for the much better. Our quality of life was about to be radically raised.

Things have certainly changed over the past 30 years when I was first involved with the emerging PC computer industry and began running across these rapturizing futurists, some of whom are still spouting!  Many of the changes are in line with those earlier predictions, and I welcome them.  But we certainly are not living in or even moving towards utopia.  In fact, there are ways that things are worse exactly because of the impact of the global digital web.

Network Negatives; People Positives

We now know that the Internet facilitates social separation as much as it brings people together.  The new communication tools are no barrier to the spread of fear and misinformation or the solidification of existing discriminatory or hierarchical patterns.  We’ve learned that the core needs of children (and adults) are not met through a digital screen.  Inequality has increased along with globalized business connections.  People still pour into cities because distance and proximity are still relevant.  It’s shockingly easy for both governments and terrorists to control, disrupt, or distort the flow of information.  Technology, including social media, has made possible new kinds of equally heinous crime and warfare.  And democracy is no stronger than it used to be.

What the pundits ignored is that technology is just a tool; that even if it is available to everyone, and even if it upsets some niches, those with the greatest power and wealth will be able to use it the most (or to hire people to use it for them) for the purpose of retaining their status and serving their needs and values.  To the extent that their well-being and values have a positive side-effect on the general welfare, everyone benefits. To the extent there is divergence, and to the extent that elites are not checked by internal or external constraints, the rest of us suffer.

I’m not anti-technology – which is mostly inescapable in any case.  There are some technologies, such as chemical weapons, whose dangers are so obvious that we need ways to prevent their development even, although probably impossible, at the pure science level.  But usually, it’s hard to know beforehand what a scientific discovery or a new tool can be used for.  (It would be good to create something like the Danish Citizen’s Technology Review program to help evaluate the societal implications before large investments are made.)

At the same time, regardless of the particular technology, we need to remember that the more democratic a society is, the better organized and demanding the “have less” and “have not” forces are, and the more that themes of mutual aid and equity are woven into the culture, the greater the constraints on elite self-aggrandizing there are – and the more likely it is that tools will be used to benefit broader sectors of the population.  We have to remember that issues of democracy, power, inequality, and humanistic values do not get positively resolved as an inevitable byproduct of anything else, including technological advance.  They have to be directly addressed.

Smart Cities From The Bottom Up

Which brings us to Smart Cities.  Embedding technology into our buildings, streets, cars, and governmental processes can be a good thing.  Just like Complete Streets, bike facilities, and parks.  But by themselves, neither technology nor infrastructure will fundamentally change our quality of life.   Some things may become easier.  Traffic may move more efficiently.  But the real determinants of value deal with the questions of: Which technologies; for what purposes? What infrastructure; accessible to which people?

In a recent interview, Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities, points out that after the finance industry’s catastrophic collapse in 2008, big corporations stopped buying new IT at the same time government was trying to keep the economy from totally collapsing through stimulus spending.  IBM, quickly followed by CISCO and others, then came up with various “Smarter Planet” strategies to sell “enterprise” systems to local and state governments.  The market didn’t take off, and the stimulus funds quickly stopped flowing, but this was the origin of the “Smart City” drumbeat.

Rather than the top-down, mega-project approach, which almost never initially succeed in either the private or public sectors ( is simply more visible than corporate failures), Townsend touts  “incremental, ad-hoc” bottom-up kinds of experimental applications that may, eventually, be knit together by the likes of IBM and other big vendors.  (This is exactly the kind of work that will be discussed at an upcoming MIT Code For America event.)

Still, Townsend is cautious.  The value of the currently hot public-private partnership model is that “for cities those are, I don’t want to say a devil’s bargain, but they’re loaded with a lot of issues, particularly when you have data being produced about cities and citizens…[which is] where a lot of the value is for the private sector partner…[the misuse of which there are only] haphazard safeguards…And then Edward Snowden shows up and basically demonstrates that things are much, much worse than anyone feared. I don’t think there’s any level of alarm about this stuff that’s unjustified.”

In fact, even before the NSA began peering into all our homes, poor people were already experiencing exactly the type of 360-surveillance that the rest of us worry about.

Boston’s Opportunity

Former Boston Mayor Menino set a good technological tone – perhaps partly because of his own fear of losing control.  Menino’s “New Urban Mechanics” program starting by focusing on citizens’ ability to talk to and get confirmed follow-up from local government, on communication rather than data collection.  New Mayor Walsh will be smart to keep this same focus.  There is a lot to build on:  Citizens Connect that sends inquiries and complaints to the right person,  Street Bump that uses smart phones to identify road problems, One Card is a multi-purpose card for educational and transit access, Discover BPS helps parents examine possible schools for their children, Where’s My School Bus tracks the too-frequently worrisome trip to/from home, Adopt a Hydrant let’s residents take responsibility for removing snow from local fire-fighting tools, and more.

But for all the pleasure and efficiency that these types of applications provide, they are only important at an intermediary level.  The deeper level, the level that most fundamentally affects quality of life level, is about people’s day-to-day sense of security – which itself comes from the resources they have available to handle the inevitable disruptions of life, the power they have to control their environment, and the strength of their social connections.  Mayor Walsh’s own history of addictive alcoholism makes him a powerful advocate for providing a safety net for those with problems.  It will be interesting to see if his pragmatic approach will have as much impact as the more ideological egalitarian stance taken by incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

However, neither de Blasio nor Walsh will have much impact on the increasing scale of our hierarchies unless public pressure creates a progressive political environment that makes equality and democracy explicit priorities.  Tools are good; what counts is how they are used, what they are used for, and who benefits versus who doesn’t.


I spent several years on the national board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, where I learned from some of the brightest people in the country about the ethical and social impacts of digital technological.  I particularly want to call out Gary Chapman and Cora Lee Whitcomb, both of whom led CPSR and both of whose untimely deaths leave us all the poorer.


Previous blog posts related to this:

> THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

> GUNS, TAXES, TRANSPORTATION, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Why Government Is A Precondition for Livability

> IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

> ELECTION EMOTIONS: Pride, Hope, Relief and the Need For More

> Thanksgiving and the Nature of Power




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39 Comments to "SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE: Technology and What It’s Used For"

  1. Jeremy wrote:

    Interesting post. Many people become too excited about technology, thinking it will solve all our problems and/or make them irrelevant. From a public transit perspective I frequently talk about how technology and “open data” can only be a small piece of progress and must be the last piece. First you need good service design, policy and operations. The best smartphone app can help with information but will never replace the actual service, or compensate for poor bus service.

  2. Steve Miller wrote:

    Jeremy: As a former high-tech employee and Board member of Computer Professionals For Social Responsibility I couldn’t agree more. Technology does have its own effect on the world around it; but the majority of its impact depends mostly on the socio-economic dynamics in which it is created, implemented, and used. Steve

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