Challenges in Evaluating the Progress of Smart Cities

In one prominent international ranking of how well municipalities have developed themselves into smart cities, Taipei is positioned in eighth place, while in another it is 26th. One survey gives Taipei its highest score for environmental policies, and another considers it one of its lowest.

The discrepancy reflects the arbitrary nature of these indices and the imprecision with which the term “smart city” tends to be discussed. Debates about communities have been turned into a technological competition, mostly concerned with products best able to extract value on the margins of society.

Focusing exclusively on technology may cause structural urban problems to be ignored and lead to inequitable development. As Taiwan accelerates its path to digitize previously analogue infrastructure, experts see long-term, interdepartmental planning as the only way to ensure that technology is working to benefit its citizens.

At its core, a city is two things: values and engineering. Values are the principles inhabitants choose to structure their life around. Engineering is the glue that enables those principles to be achieved. In a city that serves its citizens’ needs, infrastructure embodies these principles. But if technology is not properly anchored in what is important to residents of the city, the potential impact could be negative.

Calling the term “smart city” an “abstraction and obfuscation,” Jordan Kostelac, property technology director for JLL in Hong Kong, asks: “How could you be rising on a smart city index when the basic human needs are not being filled and vice versa?”

“We should be asking if the tech is just a veneer or is it actually being used to better serve the constituent needs of your residents,” Kostelac continues. “That’s where ‘smart’ gets confused with technology for technology’s sake.” “Smart” is now being used to describe virtually every city service, yet usually denotes little more than a given service being connected to the internet, run remotely, or becoming partly automated.

A much clearer distinction is needed between technology that marginally improves urban services and one that fundamentally changes the fabric of urban life. Consider the difference between projects that merely make traffic lights more responsive and those that develop autonomous public transportation to make road-centric design obsolete. Or the difference between firms that simply help construction companies source material faster and those that are creating completely new, sustainable materials to build with. One kind of digitization brings marginal efficiency. The other involves progress toward an overarching goal.

Unfortunately, all urban digitization projects have been lumped under a single category, making it nearly impossible to distinguish their usefulness to society and long-term prospects. Tech companies are incentivized to inflate how revolutionary their tech is, the venture capitalists promote this characterization to boost valuations, and the public rarely has the chance to examine the details. No one has the chance to ask why their city is spending tens of millions of dollars upgrading the light posts around the neighborhood with wi-fi. Value-extracting services have become conflated with value-creating services.

This raises the question of what kind of value is created and for whom. For example, a technology that feeds all internet traffic directly into the local police station may bring more problems than solutions. The same is true of a system that allows property owners to evict their residents at will.

Sean Moss-Pultz, CEO of Taipei-based blockchain company Bitmark, expresses a commonplace concern: “How do we make sure cities don’t become advanced infrastructure for surveillance?”

Although the threat of mass-scale surveillance is well founded, the cult of privacy has just as much potential to threaten a community. Fear of data tracking played significantly into the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Perhaps there should be less concern about whether data is collected, and more about how it is collected, by whom, and for what purpose. Is my data being used to protect those in power or hold them accountable? Is it helping to keep my neighbors healthy or to arrest them?

“Technology itself is neutral – politics imbues it with purpose,” Moss-Pultz points out. “The problem is that there is a point of no return. If you don’t focus on values, discuss limits, and create transparency around technology early on, it will become too late.”

Global “smart city” indices seem focused on whether a city is becoming more “efficient” through technology, often failing to scrutinize what that efficiency means. The goal of urban planning should not be to implement the same off-the-shelf technical improvements in every part of the world; it should be to give citizens the ability to craft communities that suit them. It is the only way to make sure we have cities that are diverse, unique, and resilient, rather than simply “smart.”

Read the companion articleImproving Urban Life Through Smart City Projects