Four Talks on Smart Cities: Do They Enhance or Weaponize our Environment

Technology is embedded in contemporary cities. From surveillance cameras to street lights, architects, scientists, planners, and engineers are finding new ways to streamline urban environments to improve the quality of life. Yet, some worry that increasing reliance on technology could lead to its potential abuse, especially when it comes to personal privacy.

We rounded up four reSITE talks discussing the pros and cons of developing “smart cities,” analyzing how the role of technology in urban environments is evolving. Each expert offers a unique perspective on how technology will continue to shape urban living, even if the dangers may outweigh the benefits.

Building the World's Smartest Cities with Marianthi Tatari

Marianthi Tatari, Associate Director and Senior Architect and UNStudio, believes that technology can be an ally to architects, designers, and planners as they imagine new urban environments. The Brainport Smart District in Helmond, Netherlands designed by her firm is a realization of technology merging with ethics to create a liveable community that adapts to the needs of its inhabitants. The small size of the Brainport Smart District encourages participation and a sharing of responsibilities that can be lost in large urban environments. Plus, the small area that includes shops and supermarkets allows for essential goods to be purchased close to home decreasing emissions of those living within. But the trailblazing facet of the Brainport Smart District comes in the data enabled homes that operate on a consent framework. Residents choose if they want their personal data to be used to inform community change. Technology plays a key role in creating an environment that is continuously adapting to the needs of its dwellers. Brainport’s consent caveat is precedent for responsible technology use.

The Power of the Collective with Bianca Wylie

Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has been vocal in her opposition towards digital surveillance. Wylie believes in the power of the collective, as reflected by the title of her talk, as she finds the collective has the best chance at creating change in times of emergency, whether it be political or climate related. By revealing the implications of data mining by private corporations and the commoditization of the data that is gathered from citizens in public spaces, Wylie emphasizes how the collective is being undermined by business empires. She criticizes Sidewalk Lab’s smart neighborhood project on Toronto’s waterfront and raises concerns about privacy issues. When companies are unregulated by elected bodies, the unconsented use of citizens’ data can be weaponized. Wylie emphasizes the importance of democratic design processes and highlights the role that city institutions play in protecting them.

Illuminating Cities After Dark with Leni Schwendinger

Leni Schwendinger, founder of NightSeeing™, the International Nighttime Design Initiative, discusses the 24-hour city, and the economic and social benefits of a city that utilizes nighttime hours. Schwendinger’s signature NightSeeing™ program is an eye-opening concept that analyzes how lighting impacts our after-hours urban experience. Lighting makes public spaces both accessible and safe, and increases the potential for activities like attending cultural events, eating at restaurants, or simply enjoying public space in urban areas after sunset. Schwendinger illuminates how transformative afterhours lighting is for urban populations.

The Dangers of Smart Cities with Adam Greenfield

Adam Greenfield, an American writer and urbanist, challenges the popular concept of “smart cities”, warning against the danger technological commoditization poses to urban centers, and most importantly the humans that live within these communities. While smart cities are often designed to be about sustainability, convenience and security, Adams thinks that these conditions will exist only for a minority of the population, and it is possible that the majority will become victims of the abuse of these technologies.

Greenfield makes the point that digital information technological networks are inherently heterogeneous, therefore large companies that collect our data are not protecting the interests of inhabitants. He says the goal of a smart city is the computational extraction of value from everyday activity, essentially dangers lie in data collection that essentializes human experience to algorithms. He believes that some of these dangers lie in the collection of public data, questioning whether or not these practices can be carried out in a democratic way. Greenfield considers why we should hesitate before investing in smart cities altogether.

Each discussion contemplates how technology affects our cities and our quality of life. The presence of technology will not disappear, but being thoughtful about its integration determines whether technology can facilitate inclusivity and sustainability or perpetuate inequalities. The debate between whether to embrace or dismiss the idea of “smart cities” is ongoing and will inspire design and debate in the coming decades. We must become informed on the technology that affects our lives. Each of these talks help to move you towards a greater understanding of “smart cities.” Listen to these four talks and others on reSITE’s YouTube page to learn more.

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