Discover more from The Bell
Smart cities need second thoughts
Technology alone won’t save our cities. It’s time to look beyond the promises of smart city solutions for post-pandemic recovery.
Mikayla Zolis (MZ) is completing her Masters in Public Policy at the Max Bell School and has worked on issues related to the future of cities such as data governance, autonomous vehicles, transit-oriented housing, and AI for well-being data. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
ONE YEAR INTO THE PANDEMIC has us feeling almost too acclimated to remote learning, working from home, and relying on technology for social connection and services that otherwise would not exist. It is inevitable that our increased dependence on technology will remain beyond the pandemic. As tech companies continue to develop solutions to problems that pertain to urban and civic life, municipalities are both pressured to keep up while resisting ‘big brother’ notions of surveillance, fractured privacy, and corporate dominance over urban governance. Yet for all of our increased reliance on technology to cope during the pandemic, the future of the 'smart cities' movement, that had once positioned itself in the spotlight of progressive urbanism, is even more uncertain.
Smart cities have gained significant attention across the world as a vision for a future that is technologically enabled – from municipal service delivery to infrastructure – with aspirations to improve government responsiveness and residents’ quality of life. Cities across Canada have spent the last few years prioritizing the exploration of this concept through research and learning, securing resources and funding, creating dedicated staff positions, and improving digital and data governance. Projects such as automatic light sensors, speed cameras, and apps have already been implemented, with new ideas like garbage can sensors, on-demand public transit, and modular roads bringing about much excitement before the pandemic. However, smart-city project deployments have stalled since COVID-19 and the hype associated with a future all-consumed by ‘tech for good’ has dampened.
Smart city solutions seem trivial compared to the big issues our cities face. Racial and income inequities, and a mental health and well-being crisis have been exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19. These issues are more pressing, interconnected, and cannot be addressed through technology alone. Infrastructure Canada seems to have recognized this by reframing their Smart City Challenge as a Healthy Communities Initiative. This program now offers two years of funding for place-based projects that improve health and resilience outcomes with digital or non-digital solutions. While cities will be hyper focused on COVID-19 recovery and responding to a burning hole in municipal revenue streams, perhaps this offers us some time to rethink the smart city movement altogether.
After Sidewalk Labs cancelled their smart city project slated for Toronto’s waterfront, citing pandemic concerns, the company said they remain committed to re-imagining the future of cities. But a re-imagined post-pandemic future perhaps should no longer prioritize such grand tech ambitions. Questions that were raised during smart city consultations around data privacy, ownership, surveillance, and monetization models are still left unanswered. Concerns about the implications to individual privacy have evolved to the threat of technology companies’ unyielding power on democracy and society at large. If cities leave these underlying questions unchecked for too long, public mistrust could derail implementation and uptake of digital solutions. While smart cities advocates may think technology will save cities, a future that makes room for other solutions can leave us better off and help us avoid inching closer to a dystopian state, especially in the absence of strong governance. So if technology alone isn’t the answer, then what is?
While digital solutions have been an effective and necessary tool during the pandemic, it does not solely or sufficiently create the social support that people need for healthy outcomes. Research suggests that higher levels of social support and community connectedness, such as the number of people you can rely on in a time of emergency, are associated with higher levels of resilience and more positive mental health and well-being outcomes. Strong social networks are more important during disasters like COVID-19 to help abate the negative effects of stressful events. The stronger an individual feels about their neighbourhood, place, its people, and values, the greater their long-term investment. This contributes to better collective decision-making and improved resilience that can protect against future disasters.
Time spent outside with nature is also known to contribute to the positive well-being of people in places. A research consensus has been established around the beneficial impacts of nature experience and psychological well-being. In fact, during the pandemic many people spent more time in nature to cope with increased time spent indoors and on screens, and the heightened levels of fear, stress, and anxiety. While 87 percent of Canadians have access to green space within a 10 minute journey from their home, this access is much lower among low-income and racialized communities, those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
At a time when there is worsened mental health among most Canadians, and greater rates of depression and loneliness, measures that create healthy, resilient, and equitable outcomes must be a top priority for cities during COVID-19 recovery. Cities can respond with re-prioritized visions of the future, centered around proposals that focus on the role of community and nature in well-being, with solutions that may exclude technology entirely.
Dr. Jayne Engle, Director of Cities for People at McConnell Foundation, gave several examples to Max Bell students in a recent talk. Defining trees as infrastructure and as assets rather than costs, can help cities better account for and manage their value. Participation of neighbourhood residents coming together to create projects can propel local entrepreneurship, community connectedness, and a robust social infrastructure. Planning neighbourhoods that have all essential amenities available within a 15-minute radius of where a person lives is an incredibly appealing prospect to a car-less and thriving future of urban life.
Cities can align future aspirations with today’s challenges by shifting focus to exploring ideas like these in the next few years. That isn’t to say cities should stop pursuing improvements to their data governance infrastructure, or slow down crafting digital policies that respond to ownership, privacy, and ethics concerns, or even halt adopting technology in municipal service delivery altogether. But as our relationship with tech remains unresolved, cities must decide if their budgets and priorities are best served buying sensors or addressing larger and more urgent issues, where digital solutions are not the only answer – because a future where people in cities can flourish neither starts nor ends at the use of technology. (MZ)
Related: Watch a discussion with Dr. Jayne Engle, Director of Cities for People at the McConnell Foundation, on imagination in urban policy, hosted by the Public Policy Association of Graduate Students at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.
Watch: That insane video from a drone in a bowling alley
Read: The epic story of the plutonium-powered spy radio the CIA tried to place on a Himalayan peak
Cook: This great scallion oil noodles recipe, in Paula Forbes’ excellent newsletter
Viral: Yo-Yo Ma celebrated getting a vaccine with an impromptu cello performance:
The Bell is edited by Emily Nickerson, Mariel Aramburu, and Andrew Potter of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to the editors at email@example.com