Do we need smart cities, or are “average intelligence” cities good enough?

The Thales website has an article that apparently was originally written in late 2018 or early 2019, but was (as of today) last updated in October 2020. The article is entitled “Digital identity trends – 5 forces that are shaping 2020.”

For purposes of this post (and yes, “for purposes of this post” is a common phrase I use when encountering a listicle), I’m going to focus on the third of the five forces, an accelerating shift towards smart cities.

I first encountered smart cities six years ago, when MorphoTrak’s Vice President of Sales sent a colleague and myself to a smart cities conference. Inasmuch as MorphoTrak was a biometric company, I was obviously paying attention to the presentations that related to biometric identity, but I also paid attention to one of the speakers from my area – Acquanetta Warren, then (and now) mayor of the city of Fontana, California. I wasn’t able to find any accounts of her 2014 presentation, but Warren spoke about smart city needs in 2017.

Fontana (Calif.) Mayor Acquanetta Warren said that Smart City developments can be particularly important in light of natural disasters and emergencies, such as the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas.

“What happens when that happens?” Warren said. “Does everything stop? Are we able to text or email each other to let each other know ‘we’re trapped, we’re in these positions, come and help us?’ ”

Mayor Warren’s comments illustrate that there is clearly a continuum on the smart city spectrum. When you read some smart city concepts and implementations, you get a view of systems of systems tracking automobiles and parking spaces, calculating anticipated carbon monoxide levels, and doing other “smart” stuff.

Mayor Warren is interested in more basic needs, such as the ability of a Fontana citizen to get help if the San Andreas Fault does its thing.

Or, perhaps, less pressing needs, such as graffiti removal. as of November 23, 2020.

This is a much simpler model than what Thales envisions in its article. In Fontana, I can report a graffiti violation anonymously. In the Thales model, “digital identity is the key that unlocks the individual’s access to a rich array of services and support.” And no, your Facebook or Google login doesn’t count.

Smarter cities worry privacy advocates, Back in 2018, the ACLU was urging public discussion about proposals in Portland, Maine to outfit street lights with wi-fi hotspots – and other monitoring sensors.

Proponents said there was nothing to worry about.

“We are very interested in deploying a variety of sensors that may be able to help with vehicle counts in intersections, numbers of pedestrians or bikes using a trail or bike path,” said Troy Moon, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “Some of these may look like a camera but only detect shapes.”

Opponents were not reassured.

“I always figured Big Brother was going to be some giant face on a wall, not a tiny camera hidden inside a light bulb,” said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU. “But what is particularly troubling here is the stealthy way in which the product is being marketed and pitched to the press; to wit, as an energy-efficient light bulb with built-in monitoring technology.”

And those who have followed the topic know that concerns have only accelerated since 2018. Just to cite one example, San Francisco has passed a strict ordinance regulating introduction of any surveillance technology.

This has resulted in a near-bifurcation in the adoption of smart city technologies, as countries such as India adopt a leading role in smart city adoption, while countries with greater privacy concerns such as the United States are slower to adopt the technologies.

I guess you can call these latter countries leaders in the “average intelligence” city movement. These countries will adopt some digital measures to improve city management, but will not go all out and do everything that is technologically possible. For example, a municipality may use technology such as Adobe Experience Manager Forms to enable digital form submission – but they’re not going to track your movements after you submit the form.

Because of the debate and the concerns, these latter countries will continue to be “average intelligence” cities in the future, while cities in other parts of the world will become smarter, for better or worse.

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