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Are Smart Cities Unequal?

Smart cities are the season’s flavor for technology behemoths.

With its centralized underground infrastructure for utilities and modular buildings that can be shifted to suit spatial needs, Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Sidewalk Labs’ vision for redeveloping Toronto’s Quayside waterfront is a futuristic techno-utopia. Similarly, Bill Gates recently invested in 25,000 acres in Arizona to build Belmont, a city that will transform a “raw, blank slate into a purpose-built edge city built around a flexible, infrastructure model”.  

Fancy marketing spiel aside, both ventures may be utopias plagued by inequality and digital divides.

“This is a large and expensive project that has to be funded and it will come at the cost of residents of the city who can least afford it,” says Dr. Constantine Kontokosta, Director of the Urban Intelligence Lab at NYU School of Engineering, His lab quantifies the effect of social, political, and economic realities on data-driven city development models. According to him, such projects are massive investment plays, where developers are focused on achieving suitable returns for their money. “So, we are not going to see much affordable housing come out of this; we are not going to see integration - racial, ethnic, or income, unless local governments intervene and push for it,” says Dr. Kontokosta. The problem with such ventures is that do not take into account what residents want from a city. “You end up creating these very stylized versions of a city but, at the end of the day, they don’t work very well for a lot of different reasons,” says Dr. Kontokosta. That both recently-announced ventures are in relatively uninhabited tracts of land within cities will only help to ease construction. “But integrating the overall neighborhood (in Alphabet’s case) into Toronto’s fabric will be a bigger challenge,” says Dr. Kontokosta.  

Based on available evidence, the benefits of smart cities don’t always trickle down to those who need it the most. For example, Rio De Janeiro attempted a smart city transformation during the Olympics last year but researchers found that smart-city technologies were “not being used to solve problems of radical inequality, or systemic poor governance, or compromised urban planning agendas - all of which continue to be the “dumbest” elements of Rio de Janeiro.”

Christopher Gaffney, author of a report that analyzes Rio De Janeiro’s smart city transformation, told me that his “initial reaction (upon reading about Alphabet’s plans for Quayside) was one of terror”. “The vested interests driving such development tend to service social and economic elite,” he said. Gaffney’s report analyzed Rio De Janeiro’s smart city development during its turn hosting the Olympics last year. According to him, the city’s mayor was more interested in “having a global showpiece that could attest to the “smartness” of his administration than in providing something that could “structurally change” the way the city is run.    

Gaffney says that smart cities veers towards technological fixes for problems related to urban governance. Such solutions typically diminish democratic inputs into planning decisions. “Residents have the illusion of participation because they contribute data but they don’t have access to that data and it is not used for long term planning,” he said. As an example, he said Rio De Janeiro’s smart city fixes, such as surveillance cameras and infrastructure upgrades, were concentrated in areas of the very wealthy. “So you not only have an infrastructure divide but also a digital divide that the smart city system exacerbates,” he said. In Rio’s case, the smart city system has sharpened differences and “structural apartheid” between rich and poor neighborhoods. Gaffney likens lack of data access and role of programmers in controlling information to “economic terrorism”, a concept that became popular in a North Carolina bill earlier this year, because it disturbs circulation of ideas. “A smart city tries to address information flow but it concentrates that information in the hands of fewer and fewer managers,” says Gaffney.  

Inequality in Toronto has increased over the years and the city was recently anointed Canada’s Inequality Capital. According to recent analysis by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Toronto’s service economy rewards high-earning families and punishes poorer ones. The end result is that poor families are getting poorer. A possible solution for this problem may be the introduction of an open data dashboard. Such dashboards provide a snapshot of city operations for regular citizens. In turn, this data will help citizens have a say in the governance of their cities.  


But that pitch is queered in the case of massive corporate involvement for smart cities. Given that Alphabet has already committed to investing $50 million in the venture, the chances that it will roll over upon the city government’s intervention are slim. At other locations where Sidewalk Labs has been asked to come up with solutions to provide basic services for the poor, it has proposed privatization of such services. Indeed, there is no mention of affordable housing or references to inequality in Sidewalk Labs’ or Belmont Properties’ proposal.

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