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Just what is a smart city?

Matt Hamblen | Oct. 2, 2015
There many examples, and some very nebulous definitions.

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.

 

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