I make the hour-long drive down to Silicon Valley with the help of Waze even though I know the way there. I use Waze because it rouses me from daydreams in time to take an exit. It’s always alert even if I’m not — and does even more than that. It watches, it records, and it remembers where I go.
That’s fine even though, for all I know, it sends all that data about me to China. I say that that’s the price of smart. I simply like the features. For me, like most of us, the bargain is acceptable.
But it’s another thing when we jump from a smartphone’s surveillance up a level to smart cities. Many people don’t even know what a smart city is. How much more does it observe, record, and store? Most important, what’s it do for me? What kind of bargain have my city administrators entered on my behalf?
A friend asked me, “What’s a smart city?” I give her the standard spiel about smooth traffic, sustainable garbage, on-demand this and that. She rolls her eyes. “Another top-down miracle,” she says in disgust. What’s it going to take to win her trust?
Though she uses data and “smart” devices every day, she rarely talks about data or technology — except to complain about tech support. She says, “I was on hold for 15 minutes just to have them tell me how to turn on the wifi.”
A second friend, a programmer, intuited a definition the first time he heard “smart city.” By day, he manages a buttoned-down crew of geeks in government who support black-robed legal wonks. His mind glides among data, technology, and public benefit like a breeze shifting course. His mind, and the group he talks to at work, likes structure and precedent. Just for fun, he doesn’t mind a wrench thrown in here and there.
Mention technology to the designer, and her mind grinds gears. I’ve learned to pivot into other visions, such as downtown parking spaces that beckon her car to leave the street and fly into a safe, warm slot forty stories up. She’s begun to dare me into letting my imagination fly away into brilliant, dreamlike cities. “Pretend you’re on acid,” she says.
The designer and the developer both find comfort in different views of “smart.” One imagines a world she doesn’t know, and the other imagines just an extension of what he does know. Either vision would include the typical benefits: efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability.
Even so, both betray uneasiness. They’ve both worked at large organizations where, for example, an email one afternoon announces a new rule to benefit “everyone.” Or a new email system to be rolled out that will make emailing “faster and easier.” Or fancy new proximity badges. For all the supposed benevolence, everyone dreads it. Such could be life in a smart city.
If smart isn’t to be stunted, such fear has to be mitigated. That, I think, can be done with openness: open data, open source, and benevolent policing to block malicious code. Let any skilled individual’s vision manifest itself in apps and whatever other data-borne stuff they want to make. Let the city be smart by making use of their smarts.
If data’s the new electricity, then let it flow. Give everyone the keys — and that includes making all data as open as possible. Let everyone in on it to be smart in their own way, following their own vision. I don’t know if that will do much to mitigate the scary, invisible hand that runs a smart city, but it’s sure worth a try.
This kind of openness and freedom to innovate on behalf of the public is what civic tech, or city hacks, is all about.