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Podcast: Take off your tech goggles, with Ben Green, author of The Smart Enough City

Green offers insights into why technology is not an end in itself and how cities can be “smart enough,” using technology to promote democracy and equity.

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Ben Green
Ben Green

In the latest episode of the SmartCitiesWorld podcast, we talk to Ben Green, author of The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future.

 

Ben Green is an Affiliate and former Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and a PhD candidate in Applied Mathematics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He studies the implementation impacts of data science in local government, with a focus on smart cities and the criminal justice system. From 2016 to 2017, Green was a data scientist in the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology.

 

Green says he was inspired to write the book as, through years of working with local government, he became “disillusioned” with some of the ways technology was being used and thought about.

 

He offers insights into why technology is not an end in itself and how cities can be “smart enough,” using technology to promote democracy and equity.

 

 

Below are some edited highlights from the discussion. For more detail or to listen on the go, download or stream the podcast.

 

Sarah Wray (SW): How did the book come about?

 

Ben Green (BG) The book comes from several years working in and around the smart city space and in local government, developing policy and thinking about how to manage data, especially questions about privacy and applications around urban planning.

 

I had become rather disillusioned with a lot of the different focuses and applications that were being sought out. I initially came to it as a technologist, feeling more excited about what these technologies can accomplish. As I looked at different domain areas data collection, urban planning, civic engagement, traffic and transportation I saw common failings that cities and technology companies were falling prey to, which were leading these smart city programmes to often not have that many positive impacts, and often to have a quite dangerous approach.

 

That could have very negative implications for many or all of the people living in those cities so I felt the need to try and shed light on what was going wrong in these smart cities and provide a different spin on how to think about achieving social change with technology, without over-valuing technology.

 

I felt the need to try and shed light on what was going wrong in these smart cities and provide a different spin.

 

This is what I call ’tech goggles’ – the perspective of always assuming technology is the answer, only recognising the types of issues within cities that technology can ameliorate and being blind to the broader social and political context that leads to and interacts with the social challenges that many cities are facing. I wanted to bring all of those things together and set a quite different path forward.

 

SW: The first thing that intrigued me about your book was the title, The Smart Enough City. What do you mean by that?

 

BG: Typically, the smart city is defined in terms of technology. [The focus of the book] is this idea that technology is never the answer. Technology is never the thing that is ultimately driving fundamental change, but technology does have the ability to catalyse and support other types of programmes and policy reforms that are valuable.

 

The goal is not just to have the technology, but to have the technology promote particular social and political values. That’s this idea of smart enough.

 

SW: In conversations with cities and technologists, I do see a shift [away from technology for technology’s sake] towards outcomes and goals and choosing the tools for specific problems. What do you think?

BG: I think that shift is definitely occurring, especially among particular groups of people most strongly among policy folks and city officials. It has become quite clear that technology is not going to be the answer in itself.

 

Five years ago, there was a sense that cities didn’t even really know what they wanted and technology companies were coming in [and seen to have] all the expertise.

 

Starting around 2016/17, as more and more cities had explored technology and had technology and innovation teams in-house, city governments had a different sense of what was necessary because they were interacting with departments and the public. They saw just how complex the challenges they were facing were and they began demanding something stronger from the technology companies. And now, some tech companies are starting to think a little bit differently.

 

However, among the tech and corporate world around smart cities, it is still much more centred on technology being the answer. The goal for them, of course, is to sell technology. For the city, the goal is to solve problems so I think there’s still a little bit of a divide.

 

Cities are still seeking for something more from the vendors in terms of providing technologies that align with their broader mission and values.

 

Cities are still seeking for something more from the vendors in terms of providing technologies that align with their broader mission and values.

 

 

SW: You write a lot in the book about the risks of injustice and inequality if technology isn’t deployed responsibly. What are some of your main concerns here?

 

BG: One is the explicit exacerbation of power imbalances. Areas like predictive policing and surveillance are often used to provide new tools to give more power to law enforcement in cities. Surveillance provides a great deal of data to tech companies that are often exploiting [it] in ways that are not in the public interest.

 

There are also examples of technology exacerbating other types of inequalities. One example might be automated vehicles. If a city decides just to have a bunch of automated vehicles flying around, that might help people who are more well off but it’s going to have quite a detrimental impact for other people who don’t have those means.

 

The other [issue] is the danger of technology and the tech goggles approach towards progress cutting off other avenues of policy reform. Many cities are, of course, concerned about transportation and mobility and there’s this idea that automated vehicles will provide the answer but there are lots of other ways that cities can promote more equitable mobility in terms of walkable neighbourhoods and the way that they promote public transit.

 

In the world of civic engagement, there’s lots of energy around various apps and other platforms to help people connect and communicate with each other. That might actually diminish the sense of urgency to do much more thorough and important policy reforms around civic engagement related to the voice that different groups of people have, and the way that city government operates.

 

SW: Do you have any examples of a ‘smart enough’ city approach that you have seen?

 

BG: One that excites me a lot is in Columbus, Ohio. In 2017, they won a smart city challenge from the US Department of Transportation to improve their transportation infrastructure. They focused on specific segments of the city and particular populations that were struggling. They recognised that they needed to focus more on dense and transit-oriented development and they found particular ways in which mobility was an issue for people in the city, focusing on issues such as prenatal healthcare, new-born child healthcare and some of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in the city.

 

[They used] a number of public meetings and interactions with these communities to think about what would actually work for them, not just what sounds cool on paper or to a bunch of engineers. They’ve been developing different programmes, most notably piloting an on-demand ride programme for expectant and new mothers in these neighbourhoods so they can get to the hospital and doctor’s appointments.

 

Also, New York City, for example, has a programme of data drills. This is like a fire drill, but for using data. Department heads and other agencies will get in a room for 24/48 hours and look at a problem – e.g. a blackout in a neighbourhood in New York City. They will identify who’s most likely to need help, who they need to send rescue crews to, etc. This is thinking about how to pull together data and make people understand the connection points between different datasets and types of information to address the often very pressing issues that city departments face on a day-to-day basis.

 

Columbus, Ohio, is piloting an on-demand ride programme for expectant and new mothers in these neighbourhoods so they can get to the hospital and doctor’s appointments.

 

San Francisco provides another example. It is developing training for different departments on what it means to have high-quality data, how to think about using data to guide and inform their processes and then deploying that data with algorithms and machine learning to solve more of the pressing problems that they’re facing.

 

SW: What is your message for city leaders and technologists?

 

BG: Don’t start with the technology; start with real problems. And make sure to talk to a wide range of people to do that. It’s not just engineers who need to be in these conversations; it’s everyone who lives in the city, and especially the people who are often not included in these types of conversations.

 

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