Critics Warn of ‘a Dragnet of Surveillance’ as U.S. Pushes Ahead With Plans for More ‘Smart’ Cities
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week announced $94 million in grant awards to fund 59 smart city technology projects across the country.
Despite widespread and mounting pushback against biometric surveillance and control systems associated with smart city technologies and the failure of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) previous attempt to grant-fund smart city transformation in Columbus, Ohio, Buttigieg told The Verge he thinks “smart city technologies matter more than ever.”
Cities just need to take a different approach — experimenting with and testing out different technologies first, rather than implementing a “grand unified system” all at once, Buttigieg said.
The new grants, part of the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program, are the first round of $500 million in funding that will be awarded for smaller smart mobility projects over the next five years, authorized under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
In this funding round, DOT awarded smart grants for a range of projects, including drone surveillance or delivery, smart traffic signals, connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, smart grid development, intelligent sensors and other Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure. Some cities, including Los Angeles (LA), received multiple grants.
Smart city development typically focuses on the implementation of technologies like the IoT, 5G, cloud and edge computing, and biometric surveillance to track, manage, control and extract profit from an array of urban processes.
Whitney Webb, an investigative journalist and smart cities critic, said the smart city infrastructure is meant to facilitate the development of cities “micromanaged by technocrats via an all-encompassing system of mass surveillance and a vast array of ‘internet of things’ devices that provide a constant and massive stream of data that is analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI).”
‘Concept of a sensor in every home doesn’t look as shiny as it once did’
Smart city projects began gaining traction in the U.S. in 2015, boosted by a program launched by then-DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. Foxx, who went on to become the chief policy officer for Lyft, now works at Tulco, a data science venture capital firm. Foxx created the “Smart City Challenge,” which offered a $50 million grant to the mid-sized city with the best proposal to remake their city as a “smart city.”
Vulcan LLC, an investment and philanthropic organization dedicated to materializing the vision of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and whose profit-making services focus on real estate development, partly funded the federal grant.
Columbus, Ohio, beat out 77 other cities with its “revolutionary” proposal, but the project was by most accounts a failure — expensive trip-planning kiosks erected downtown were never used, autonomous shuttles had accidents, the public transportation platform was rarely downloaded and censor-connected trucks failed to materialize.
Then, in May 2020, another paradigmatic smart city model project failed when Google smart city subsidiary Sidewalk Labs scrapped plans to build a smart city prototype in Toronto amid public outcry about surveillance and profiteering.
According to The Globe and Mail, Eric Schmidt, former head of Google parent company Alphabet, described the project in these terms:
“The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.’”
Visions like these raised a lot of flags among both expertsand the general public.
Even one of the smart city concept’s biggest promoters, Wired Magazine, admitted that skepticism about smart cities had grown:
“Today, as citizens think more carefully about tech-enabled surveillance, the concept of a sensor in every home doesn’t look as shiny as it once did.”
Global market for smart cities projected to reach $696 billion by 2028
But pushback hasn’t stopped tech visionaries and states from moving forward with smart development projects. The global Smart Cities Market is projected to grow to $696 billion by 2028, growing from $467 billion in 2022, according to a market research report published Monday.
Webb reported that soon after Schmidt commented on the vision behind the Toronto smart city, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tapped him to lead an effort to reimagine post-pandemic life in the state, building smart city infrastructure through partnerships with the Israeli government.
In fact, the COVID-19 lockdowns led to a series of positive PR pieces promoting the implementation of smart cities and several conferences “re-imagining” them.
Smart city pilot projects continue to proliferate. In Japan, Toyota is building Woven City, a 175-acre prototype, where people and things are completely connected through data and censors. The project will test new technologies, such as automated driving, robotics and AI in a “real-world environment.”
Researchers are studying residents of neighborhoods in Helsinki and Amsterdam who added smart technology to their homes and using the information to help with the development of “experimental innovation platforms.”
Even small towns like Cary, North Carolina, have turned themselves into smart cities by deploying IoT sensors that “collect data and enable analytics to provide actionable insights” across the entire city.
In Busan, South Korea, The New York Times reportedTuesday, 54 families are subjecting every aspect of their lives to data collection so developers can use their behavior as a basis to build a smart city “from the ground up.”
The DOT awarded several Smart grants to LA — $2 million for curb management, $2 million for event-integrated transportation ticketing, and Orange County got $1.6 million for a cloud-based transit signal system.
The seemingly banal concept of “curb management,” Bloomberg reported, “has become a focus of serious attention from some of the world’s leading technology companies.” It is a hot development site for smart city startups like Coord, a spinoff of Sidewalk Labs, as cities seek to digitize, track and regulate curb space sought after by the private transportation network of the smart city — scooters, bikes, delivery drivers, Uber drivers, etc.