Regardless of plot or author, the futuristic cities we see in sci-fi flicks tend to have a few common traits. Sleek skyscrapers soar overhead, manned by polite robots and electric doors. Hologrammed ads blink at pedestrians from building sides while self-driving (hover)cars trundle along the packed urban streets. The term “smart city” brings to mind the utopias — or, depending on whether you prefer Orwell, dystopias — found in old-school science fiction novels. The implied urban landscape is both technologically advanced and utterly removed from the reality of today’s modern cities — at least at first glance.

As it turns out, real-world “smart cities” might be more humble, benign, and present than their sci-fi counterparts would suggest. While no city has wholly incorporated “smart” technology into its infrastructure quite yet, prominent urban hubs like New York are well on their way to the mark.

What Makes a City “Smart”?

The term does have a definition beyond sci-fi. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), a “smart” city is one that uses innovations like big data analytics, IoT innovations, cloud computing, and other emerging technologies to share data and improve efficiency across municipal platforms. These hubs don’t use technology for technology’s sake — instead, they use “smart” solutions to underpin the city’s infrastructure and ensure that basic utility systems like water, power, and waste pickup function effectively. The practical applications aren’t sci-fi sleek, but they are useful — and, in modern times, necessary.

Today, overpopulation is a significant risk for the world’s most prominent urban hubs. Statistics provided by the U.S. Census indicate that 80.7% of the country’s population lived in urban areas as of 2010, with more likely to do so in the years to come. People are migrating to city hubs; the New York-Newark metro area alone houses 18,351,295 residents. When mass shifts like these occur, they put significant pressure on a city’s infrastructure and capacity. The influx strains housing resources, sanitation systems, healthcare services, and food supplies. Over time, the strain can have real repercussions on a resident’s quality of life and cause problems that include but are not limited to a greater likelihood of organized or violent crime, a higher prevalence of pollution-caused illnesses, increased traffic wait times, and overstrained sanitation systems.

Smart cities use data-driven systems to better understand and solve these problems. For example, some solutions might include sustainable water systems, intelligent traffic systems, or technology that predicts where crimes are most likely to be committed in a given day. All are useful, if not flashy. Cities have certainly seen the appeal; in a recent report, analysts for the IDC estimated that smart city technology spending topped $80 billion globally in 2016 and is likely to reach $135 billion by 2021.

Case Study: New York

New York, aware of its strained resources and growing population, has taken steps to integrate smart technology into its infrastructure.

Over the last few years, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation has launched several initiatives to make the city a sustainable, tech-forward urban hub. So far, their efforts have predominantly focused on smart utilities and monitoring; in 2013, they launched the Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency (ACE) program, which dedicated over $350 million to retrofitting lighting systems to be more efficient and reducing emissions. Similarly, the city’s Big Belly garbage collection initiative uses data to more effectively assess when trash needs to be picked up, thereby improving collection efficiency by an estimated 50-80% and cutting back on the emissions that previous garbage trucks might have created. City planners have taken parallel strides with New York’s water and air monitoring systems; research put forth by the New York Engineers’ organization estimates that sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped by over 70% in NYC since 2008.

As these initiatives indicate, urban engineers can use data-driven systems to pinpoint and solve problems caused by overpopulation. New York demonstrates that being a “smart” city isn’t about keeping up with current trends or integrating flashy tech — it’s about making the city’s support systems run more efficiently.

Some, however, worry that the benefits of embracing “smart city” life come at too high a cost.

 

Barriers to Smart City Adoption: Privacy and Trust

Smart cities run on data collection — there’s no way around it. However, some critics worry that in collecting that data, urban hubs may open the door to those who would abuse data findings and overstep privacy expectations.

Consider the backlash Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, currently faces in Waterfront Toronto. In Spring of 2017, the tech company put forth a proposal to collaborate with the government to build a new community “from the Internet up.” Its pitch was tempting: it offered to create a wholly renewable energy system, environmentally-friendly buildings, driverless public transit, configurable streets, and a digital identity system that would give residents access to both public and private services.

At first listen, the proposal seemed to have few downsides — but soon, critics began questioning the project. The smart tech Sidewalk Labs proposed to monitor traffic patterns and determine identity, they argued, would use round-the-clock sensors in public spaces and even potentially draw data from citizens’ devices. They would have no privacy agreement, and no way to allow a citizen to “opt out.” Moreover, many citizens may not have the technical savvy to understand what they would be opting out of. The project is a privacy disaster waiting to happen, and Sidewalk Labs is still trudging through the PR mire. The impact of the pushback on the project is as yet unknown.

One point is certain; despite the knot that privacy concerns pose to their development, smart city infrastructure is and will continue to provide necessary support to growing urban populations. However, we can’t just rush in thoughtlessly. If the case study in Toronto demonstrates anything, it would be that people don’t want to end up in a — well-intentioned or not — Orwell-esque surveillance state. Urban engineers of the future will need to find ways to address the privacy question and integrate thoughtful, privacy-aware solutions that will not take advantage of the very urban citizens they aim to support. After all, NYC needs smart measures; if it doesn’t, it will surely buckle under the weight of its own inefficiencies.