Smart cities

Just what IS a smart city?

There many examples, and some very nebulous definitions

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But then, he added, "Really, a smart city is about having sensor data that then gets used to create actions. You can define a smart city as a city with better managed infrastructure that is variable, based on input of data and adjustments of the results to best utilize resources or improve safety."

Piva and others might add that a city could use the data to improve the happiness of its visitors, residents and workers.

Gold added, "The ultimate goals of smart cities are power management, reducing pollution footprints, increasing public safety, or offering improved services to residents. The downside is that it takes investment infrastructure, and most cities don't have a lot of extra dollars to invest. But it's coming in small steps in many places."

Vendors are lining up

In addition to big tech companies like IBM, Cisco, GE, Intel and others, there are hundreds of smaller vendors of hardware, software and apps that want to cash in on the smart city phenomenon.

In Kansas City, Cisco partner Sensity System, a provider of high-tech outdoor lighting, is installing LED streetlights equipped with sensors that can be dimmed automatically for precise ambient light conditions. While city officials haven't said what they expect to spend on the expensive new LED lighting, Sensity has stated the city stands to save $4 million a year with the new approach.

KC station sign Matt Hamblen

Kansas City's 2.2-mile streetcar line, coming next year, sits in the center of an innovation district that will include smart city elements like free Wi-Fi, station interactive kiosks and sensors to guide traffic and control streetlights.

Sensity has big ambitions for the world's billions of streetlights and has created technology called Light Sensory Networks that turns an LED streetlight into a platform for data and video for blossoming Internet of Things networks. Each LED street lamp can become a sensor-equipped smart device with a unique IP address to serve as a node in a broadband network, often wirelessly. That smart device can power other smart devices, like video sensors or Wi-Fi access points, to support parking, surveillance or industrial applications, such as systems that tell city snowplows when and where to salt or plow snow.

At CTIA Super Mobility Week 2015 in Las Vegas recently, Verizon showed a smart street lamp that was built by its partner Illuminating Concepts and is similar to those installed for a smart lighting project in Lansing, Mich. The streetlights are connected wirelessly to the cloud and can provide public announcements over audio speakers or via digital signs. They can also handle air pollution analysis and other functions. Each pole costs nearly $6,000, although pricing depends on the sensors installed and the functions the pole is used for.

In addition to Verizon, AT&T and other large U.S. wireless carriers have jumped on board the smart city movement. In Kansas City, Sprint recently invested $7 million for a free Wi-Fi zone around the coming 2.2-mile streetcar route.

Social scientists ponder the downside of the 'smart city'

While the technology industry and city officials all over the world are promoting the various benefits that smart cities are expected to bring, at least two social scientists have recently raised concerns about the ways smart city technologies can be used to manipulate people with things like facial recognition systems and automated policing tools.

In a paper titled "The Spectrum of Control: A Social Theory of the Smart City," Jathan Sadowski and Frank Pasquale called attention to some of the negative aspects of cities filled with networks of smart sensors.

"At present, smart city boosters are far too prone to assume that a benevolent intelligence animates the networks of sensors and control mechanisms they plan to install," they wrote.

Both researchers are concerned that smart cities may feature networks that provide "little escape from a seamless web of surveillance." That "web of surveillance" could clearly include facial recognition systems, but Sadowski and Pasquale argue that the potential to use technology to track people's movements goes deeper -- smartphones might be tracked via GPS or beacons, for example. Depending on the person using the technology, the collection of such information could be seen as beneficial or insidious.

"It is against [the] democratic egalitarian goal -- of fair benefit- and burden-sharing -- that alleged 'smartenings' of the city must be measured," they conclude. Sadowski is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, and Pasquale is a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Other social scientists have raised similar red flags about smart city technologies, and officials in some cities have addressed citizens' concerns that sensors and other smart systems could be used in a way that invades people's privacy.

In Kansas City, the city council recently passed a resolution committing to follow data privacy best practices. The mayor also created a panel known as the Smart City Advisory Board to offer guidance on privacy concerns.

The nebulous smart city label

While Sadowski and Pasquale have joined a number of social commentators questioning where the smart city phenomenon is headed, they also condemned the broad way the term "smart city" has been defined.

"Major corporate players work hard to push smartness as an ideal and to pull city leaders and investors into the smartness orbit," they state in their paper. "[They] have worked hard to create this market and to shape it in certain ways. Yet, with this massive growth and capital investment, the label 'smart city' is nebulous.... This ambiguity does a lot of work for smart city proponents and purveyors. The label.... [gives] them discursive cover in case they need to distance themselves if something goes wrong or doesn't deliver on a promise."

Smart city proponents, naturally, see things differently. They say it's a little like the early days of the PC or the way that people first envisioned social networks like Facebook. A desktop computer was originally seen as a better tool for typing reports than an electric typewriter, but the machine later became the all-important, expansive portal to the Internet. And before Facebook exploded to global prominence, few could envision how important intimate mobile connections would one day be to millions of people.

"The exciting part is that we don't know what we don't know" about smart city technology, said Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City. Notice, he called it "exciting."

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