And for cities, especially US cities, competing with other cities for private investment sets off a race to the bottom in which public agencies vie to win new technologies that don’t work well with the technical systems or processes they already have in place. Many experienced the smart cities craze of the 2010s with a sense of anxiety: they joined in as much because they feared being left behind in the battle for the creative class and the new innovation economy as because they thought new technologies could provide real solutions. 

All this is to say that in many ways, the city is no longer the primary consumer for smart city firms. Rather, it functions primarily as an innovation sandbox that the tech sector uses to prototype products and distribute services. For the industry, cities are mainly just the places where its customers live.

A lighter touch

In previous eras, partnerships between cities and industries gave rise to new roads, bridges, buildings, parks, and even whole neighborhoods. These changes, from sprawling suburbs like Levittown to the vast Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway System to Boston’s Central Artery, drew plenty of criticism. But at least they involved real investment in the built environment. 

Today, though, cities such as Toronto have organized against large-scale smart city initiatives that propose changes to physical infrastructure, and many tech firms have pivoted toward “lighter” projects. Popular among these are smart services such as ride-sharing and food delivery apps, which gather a great deal of data but leave the physical city unchanged.

One real problem is that smart city projects, in their many manifestations, don’t look backward to see what must be modified, adapted, unwound, or undone. Functionally, cities sit upon layers of interconnected (and sometimes disconnected) systems. To stand on any downtown street corner is to observe old and new infrastructure (traffic signals, light poles) installed at different times for different reasons by both public agencies and private firms. (Regulations also vary widely between jurisdictions: in the US, for example, local governments have highly tailored land use controls.) But most of today’s projects aren’t designed to be backward compatible with existing urban systems. The smart cities idea, like the tech sector itself, is forward focused. 

The “light” interventions that are now popular float above the complexity of the urban landscape. They rely on existing platforms: the same roads, same homes, same cars. These business models demand (and offer) few upgrades and minimize tech companies’ need to negotiate with incumbent systems. Soofa, for example, advertises that its smart wayfinding kiosks can be installed with only “four bolts into any concrete surface.” But these displays barely integrate with a city’s existing transportation system, much less improve it.