Skip to main content

Smart Cities Don't Cede Autonomy to Tech Giants

Global Insight by Matt Watson
Smart Cityscape

City leaders must ensure full transparency and public control of data and infrastructure when partnering with tech vendors on smart city solutions.

Originally coined by IBM in the 1990s, the term “smart cities” has by now become a buzzword to describe the broader concept of government by algorithm. The notion that digital sensors that capture large quantities of data can be used to improve public services and solve urban problems has become ingrained in the urban affairs discourse.  

Yet serious questions have emerged regarding who truly owns the digital urban layer: local governments, or the technology vendors who provide and manage the infrastructure? The broader concern—validated by ventures like Sidewalk Labs—is that cities will cede too much autonomy to tech giants, who benefit from monetizing public data but remain unaccountable to local residents.   

A recent essay by Nonresident Fellow Kris Hartley highlights the disconnect. In “Smart and Sustainable? Capitalism and City Futures in the Age of Crisis,” Hartley argues that the “smart” narrative of city development obscures its capitalist logic of continuing to privatize and financialize public goods. Even though smart technology is sold to residents as a means for improving the public realm, the companies offering such services are, inevitably, motivated first by profit. City leaders should therefore embark on such smart projects with a healthy dose of skepticism.  

This isn’t to say that technology cannot be employed to solve urban problems or improve government services—only that public input and control of such projects is critical to ensuring that residents are the primary beneficiaries. And while corporate power has so far held the upper hand, cities can leverage their collective clout to tip the balance in their favor.  

Sidewalk Labs Toronto: A Cautionary Case Study 

When it was announced in October 2017 that the city of Toronto and Google’s “smart city” subsidiary would partner to build Sidewalk Toronto—"the world's first neighborhood built from the internet up”—tech boosters hailed it as a massive investment that would raise the city’s international profile.  

Yet from the start, many residents and public officials raised serious questions about data and privacy, the role of a private company in city planning, and the lack of public accountability. How did Sidewalk Labs plan to make money off the venture? What role would it have in owning or managing real estate? The company’s hesitation to answer such questions only increased concerns over a lack of democratic governance.  

These concerns were articulated by Bianca Wylie, cofounder of the advocacy group Tech Reset Canada, who testified at a January 2018 Toronto City Council meeting and implored councilors to think about “data infrastructure the way we think about critical physical infrastructure. It cannot be proprietary.” Though the council requested that Waterfront Toronto—the public-private partnership managing the project—establish a democratic advisory board to manage public assets, nothing came of this request.  

The company’s silence likely stemmed from its suspicion that residents wouldn’t like the answers. That’s because, in order for private tech firms to profit, the smart city must be realized as a “city as a platform” concept, in which the digital layer of the city mimics the structure of the internet’s network architecture. Much like how a smartphone operating system runs various apps, the city as a platform encourages private companies to implement digital solutions to urban problems. 

In this platform model, public data is both the infrastructure and the commodity, and city governance is reimagined as “the collection and transmission of data to applications and services” that run on the platform.  

As Hartley argues, this new privatization and commoditization of public goods replaces the idea of a city as a community of people with one based on faceless market transactions that cedes public accountability to the private sector. As Riad Meddeb and Calum Handforth write in the MIT Technology Review, “cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress.” 

Smarter, Not "Smart" 

Does this mean cities should turn down opportunities to implement smart technology to solve urban problems? Not necessarily. But it points to cities’ obligation to wield their power to protect the public good.  

Through processes such as procurement reform, cities can be smarter in terms of their engagement with tech companies. In his recent essay, “Cities and Social Entrepreneurs: A playbook for Catalytic Collaboration,” Nonresident Fellow Sascha Haselmayer makes the case for problem-based procurement, a system in which city leaders publish their urban problems and connect with global city networks and social entrepreneurs to learn from best practices, greatly expanding the universe of solutions.  

Such a process offers transparency and engages residents in solving problems, rather than allowing a tech giant to identify a problem and propose a solution that conveniently utilizes its product. For example, in 2013 when Barcelona gave problem-based procurement a try with the Barcelona Open Challenge, the city engaged with 35,000 residents—compared to the roughly dozen or so people who normally participate in the procurement process.  

Additionally, through city networks and cross-border knowledge exchange, best practices in areas such as procurement can scale from the local to the global level. Such solutions suggest that cities can leverage their collective clout to utilize private-sector innovation to solve urban problems, without selling off public data and infrastructure and trading public accountability for private profit.

About the Author
Matt Watson
Former Communications Officer
Headshot for Matt Watson
Matt Watson served as the communications officer for the Center on Global Cities. In this role, he was responsible for implementing the center's multimedia communications strategy and assisting with the Council's digital transformation.
Headshot for Matt Watson