Smart Cities Conference Raises Concerns About Those Left Behind by Technology

Numerous panels of a recent smart cities conference in New York–including a keynote from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—highlighted how technology could exacerbate today’s inequalities.

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaking at Smart Cities New York, which ran from May 8 – 10 in New York City. Courtesy Smart Cities New York

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t known for pulling punches, and at a recent smart cities conference, he lived up to that reputation. During his keynote discussion, he spoke to a packed audience about the need for social inclusion, saying “if you can’t have people with the tools to access [smart city technologies], it’s just a good concept for a conference.” While the blunt comment may have been expected of Emanuel, that urgent warning wasn’t an aberration at the conference either.

Now in its second year, the Smart Cities New York conference is built around the international smart cities industry, a field with major players like Panasonic and Bosch, as well as countless small startups. (As the industry has grown, so has its prominence: smart cities has also become a major focus at CES.) Smart city tech generally falls into a few basic categories: mobility (think autonomous vehicles and bike shares), open data (analyzing cities’ public data to gain insights and improve public services), and smart buildings/infrastructure (a field usually focused on energy efficiency).

While you’d expect an industry conference to focus on trends and innovations, Smart Cities New York’s second day of discussions (especially those focused on urban planning) frequently discussed the wide pitfalls facing cities vis-a-vis technology.

This circumspection was perhaps due to the preponderance of public sector figures, like Emanuel, who repeatedly emphasized the need to ensure that this emerging industry benefits cities’ disenfranchised residents. Urbanites who can’t harness publicly-available data or new apps may not see the benefits of, for instance, improved transit or public health. As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms put it, her greatest fear is that we’re “creating an even larger divide with underserved communities.” By focusing on technology’s problem-solving abilities alone, she continued, we’re “addressing one issue, exacerbating another.”

Deepening the challenge is the tech industry itself, which seems to be receiving the lion’s share of this generation’s economic growth. In a separate panel, Seth Pinsky, an executive at RXR Realty and former head of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), said that the 21st century’s digital innovations are creating clear economic winners and losers. Until wealth is shared more evenly—a far-off prospect, he said—the growing economic gap will cause increasing political instability. Deliberate policy remedies, such as affordable housing, could ameliorate the situation, he added.

smart cities new york 2018 recap
From left to right: Michael Berkowitz of 100 Cities, Mayor Gregor Robertson of Toronto, Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms of Atlanta, and Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam. Courtesy Smart Cities

While many panelists issued dire warnings, several participants did highlight solutions. Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver (a city that was an early adopter of “open data”) cited Vancouver’s CityStudio program as template for other cities. CityStudio pairs students with local universities to create urban-focused initiatives (such as an online map of Vancouver’s unused spaces) and develop skillsets germane to smart city industries and public governance. Similarly, Emanuel dwelled on Chicago’s scholarship and education programs, describing them as helping prevent greater socioeconomic divides. “Libraries are becoming job training centers,” he said, adding that Chicago’s public schools, parks, and transit were all being “invigorated with a new mission” of ensuring an inclusive, equitable city.

If there was another sentiment that cut across almost every panel, it was that cities—and not state or federal agencies—would be the ones to fix these problems. Emanuel said that “we’re in an inflection point where the nation-state is in decline,” with city-states rising to power the global economy.

Or as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put it in a brief appearance, “we, at the city level, are the agents of change right now.”

You may also enjoy “This Tiny Amsterdam Neighborhood Is a Prototype for Grassroots Urban Planning.”

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