No sooner had I posted the story in 2017 about Steve Pepple’s real-time visualization of a San Francisco parade’s data than a reader lodged an objection. “Building displays that show where the parties are,” wrote that reader, “could also show a gunman what sites to shoot up.”
True, Pepple’s LCD display, hanging in a neighborhood art project’s entryway for any passerby to see, posed that familiar risk. But let’s not all run away screaming in terror just yet. Pepple’s project — a bit player in the “smart cities” super-genre — deserves a long look at what it and others on the same scale may offer.
How much additional risk did his project pose? Slight. Pepple points out that scouting for targets is easy enough even without his guide. If the would-be shooter wants a small event, he looks for crowds and noise. If he thinks his gun rates a big event, he looks for police.
What benefit did Pepple’s LCD screen offer? Again, slight. At least its immediate benefit. The LCD was up and down in a day — a confection that went down like a piece of good chocolate.
A comparable balance arose a century ago. Electricity let people read at night at last and powered motors where steam or muscular effort had been required. Those features had to balance out with the danger of electrocution and fire. We opted for opportunity. Electricity has since become such a pivotal technology that now we say that data is “the new electricity” (as we discard the tired “new oil” metaphor).
Electricity became pivotal partly because it’s easy enough for most people can learn to work with it. Courses and books are easy to find and are very inexpensive. Clever people holed up to invent electrical machines and circuitry in your own garages as long as there have been light bulbs to work under. For equipment, supplies, and free expertise, there’s plentiful retail and even your next door neighbor.
It didn’t become useful solely on the backs of AT&T Labs and other enterprise-scale outfits. The many unknown, everyday bit players had a hand in it too.
Though Pepple’s screen was up and down in a day, Pepple himself is still in the civic tech game — along with the growing ranks of others like him. Community know-how, especially with the help of Code for America and perhaps similar organizations, continues to build.
Those volunteers — coders, UX designers, project managers, and others — constitute Small Smart. Meanwhile, Big Smart vendors are the colonizers usually associated with “smart cities.” That’s where the city-wide projects happen: millions of dollars spent, hundreds of city planning staff hours spent poring over plans, months with vendors hammering out data rights, then more months of public inconvenience with torn up intersections — all to embed cutting-edge sensors and other tech that may or may not work.
Each, Small Smart and Big Smart both, bring along a risk-versus-benefit tradeoff.
Look at each type closely, though, and you begin to suspect, as I do, that Small Smart may just offer something more — something that gets woven into the community instead of becoming obsolete with every upgrade.
The volunteer, small scale projects, widely known as “civic tech” build a city’s culture of smart. That’s what makes cities truly smart.
My theory is based on the Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs, specifically her theory of import replacement.