'A City is Not a Computer:' Why 'Smart Cities' Fail

The 'smart city' concept fails to take into account the necessary slowness of democracy and the unpredictability of a city's human inhabitants.

2 minute read

August 18, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Smart City

Tumisu / Pixabay

In an excerpt from her book A City is Not a Computer, author Shannon Mattern argues that the 'smart city' concept touted by Google's Sidewalk Labs and other technologists has not lived up to its promises, in part because the "move fast and break things" mentality typical of big tech runs up against the sometimes glacial pace of civic bureaucracy. 

In an example from Toronto's Quayside project, the Sidewalk team "encountered, through the design process, the (often productive) slowness and friction of government bureaucracy and democratic deliberation." In the end, "[a]fter a long, messy process plagued by controversy over financing, governance, data privacy, and a host of other concerns, [CEO of Bloomberg LP Dan] Doctoroff took again to Sidewalk Talk in May 2020 to announce that the Quayside project was pulling the plug." According to local Sidewalk critic and public technology expert Bianca Wylie, "[w]hile the failure is certainly due in part to a changed world … this explanation brushes under the rug years of sustained public involvement in the project, from supporters and critics alike. From its inception, the project failed to appreciate the extent to which cities remain strongholds of democracy" and how the unpredictability of the human element makes it impossible to 'program' a city. 

"[S]mart technologies often furnish convenient stopgap solutions; they provide a quick, and often lucrative, targeted fix that absolves leaders of the responsibility to investigate and resolve the root causes for health and racial injustices and systemic breakdowns." But while "Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things," writes Mattern, "cities, if responsibly designed and administered, can’t afford such negligence—even if multiple converging crises seem to necessitate the rapid prototyping of urban solutions."

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