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Are smart cities utopian or dystopian?: John Lorinc on the potential and pitfalls of smart city technologies

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with 2022 Donner Book Prize nominee and Toronto-based author and journalist John Lorinc about his nominated book, Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to The Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by John Lorinc, a Toronto-based author and journalist who’s written three books, including his most recent, Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias. Dream States has been shortlisted for the prestigious Donner Prize for the best public policy book by a Canadian. The prize will be awarded on May 18th. John, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book and its success.

JOHN LORINC: Thanks very much.

SEAN SPEER: Let me start with a basic question. What are smart cities? Are they a marketing device? A tech-bro fantasy? Or something that could really positively transform the lives of average urban residents?

JOHN LORINC: So, there’s an active and unfinished debate about what this term means, particularly in academia, as you probably won’t be surprised to hear. The way I use the term is to denote this broad family of technologies that are largely digital; they use a lot of sensors, big data analytics, and that thing, and they operate on different types of urban systems. So that’s the way I use the term, and some of them are positive in their applications; some of them are neutral or don’t work all that well; and some of them are negative. And I try to explore those different categories in the book.

SEAN SPEER: A key insight in the book is that today’s smart cities technology is part of a historical progress of new technologies transforming and often improving the conditions for those living in cities. You dedicate a whole chapter, for instance, to water and sewage technologies. Talk a bit about your point here, John. Why was it important for you to put smart cities into this historical context?

JOHN LORINC: So part of it is personal. I really am a big geek for urban history, and I’ve written quite a bit about it. And I find it an interesting topic because there are these fairly finite number of technologies that enable us to live in urban spaces. And there are things that you don’t necessarily think about. The S-joint in your toilet, for example, is a really good example. And what I wanted to do with this book is contextualize this emergence of these new technologies and put it in this broader historical context, because I do think that it’s important if you’re thinking about cities or if you’re writing about cities, and if you’re living in cities, to understand them in four dimensions. There are all the three that we can see and touch. And then there’s this fourth one called time. And we live with this accumulation of build form and technologies that have enabled these spaces to evolve. And this process is ongoing, of course, and now it includes this family of digital technologies. And this is why I tried to string them together in that way.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer. One difference perhaps is today’s concerns about data and privacy. Toronto Sidewalks Labs failed for various reasons, but a key one was that people were discomforted by the idea that a company and/or a government was collecting so much data on us in real-time. It felt, to many, like a sci-fi film or modern China. Have any cities pursuing smart cities technologies figured this out? What sort of data or privacy regime, in your view, could secure democratic buy-in?

JOHN LORINC: So generally speaking, the European Union has the strongest and most robust privacy legislation. And it’s interesting because a lot of other countries are just gradually moving in that direction, and you have a whole bunch of different types of rights, the right to disappear from the internet, for example. And there are a bunch of these sorts of privacy regulations. And so Europe is also, perhaps not coincidentally, where you see some of the most interesting applications of smart city technology in a way that’s consistent with the type of society we have, which is liberal democracies where there’s this notion of civilian oversight. You should have some ability to understand what governments do on your behalf and with the resources that you give to them. So that’s the trade-off Canada’s privacy legislation, which is being updated, was really found wanting with the—and that I don’t think anybody, except for the people who were really immersed in this world, really understood just how lagging it was until the Sidewalk Labs thing came up. And it was a bucket of cold water on our heads. We realized that there are all these technologies that are very powerful that we really would surrender a lot of our privacy and our ability to just manage this data that are collected in public space on our movements and on all sorts of things.

SEAN SPEER: Another challenge, at least in the Canadian context, is that moving ahead with Sidewalk Labs or other smart city projects is that they tend to involve a big role for large global companies rather than involving smaller domestic ones. How does economic nationalism play into your story? And on a separate yet related note, why do you think that American big tech companies have gone from being perceived as engines of progress to the source of suspicion? What happened? How, in other words, did we start hating Silicon Valley?

JOHN LORINC: So I think that I’m going to answer the second question first. So, the narrative about Sidewalk Labs—and for your readers who aren’t that familiar, it was this big Google subsidiary that wanted to redevelop a portion of Toronto’s industrial waterfront—and they arrived and the project was unveiled in 2017, and it stumbled along for three and a half years. Then they finally pulled up roots. And in the middle of that was this moment when Cambridge Analytica surfaced. It was, I believe, this big aha moment for a lot of people in the tech industry. Because there have always been concerns about privacy and about how much we share on social media, but this was a moment when we all learned that there were these companies that were taking personal data out the back door and using it in ways that lots of people didn’t approve of. I think that that was a pivot moment. And I think that had that not happened in the middle of the Sidewalk Labs story, it would’ve taken a different turn. So that’s the broader context around how we’re thinking about tech.

There are a ton of companies, big and small, developing smart city solutions. Some of them are very far-reaching, some of them are quite specific to how a municipality operates. It’s not necessarily a space that must be dominated by big companies. There are big companies that were very involved with at Siemens and Cisco, and Sidewalk Labs, Google. But it’s a big space. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue generated in the sector every year. So it’s not necessarily a space that’s totally dominated, like search for example.

And, depending on how ambitious cities are in terms of their adoption or their use of this, that is connected with how much they’ll use very big solutions versus very small solutions. There are lots of places where municipalities or regions where they’ll buy a certain technology, and it may be bespoke, it may be something more off the shelf, maybe local, it may be bigger, and then there are other places where there’s this big bang thing where a small number of big tech companies and big developers are building like a whole city. And we’ve seen Sang-O, for example, in South Korea. And that was what Sidewalk Labs was going to be. So a lot of areas.

SEAN SPEER: As an intellectual matter, one thing that struck me as I read the book is the potential tension between smart cities being top-down and bottom-up. On one hand, they claim to draw on the decentralized experiences and preferences of individuals to better inform operational and policy decision-making. On the other hand, they centralize these data in the hands of a small number of companies or public administrators. What do you think of that tension? How much is the gap between the idealized version of the smart city and its practical reality and explanation for the lack of political progress?

JOHN LORINC: It’s a big gap. One of the things I wanted to do with the book was really explain what we’re talking about when we’re talking about smart city technology. And there’s a whole potentially possibly laborious part of the book where I get into it. And in a lot of cases, these are very specific applications. They don’t have anything to do with personal data. They’re about traffic light control and that kind of thing. And that’s all fine. I think that the point of scale and the point of the centralization, it really depends on the application. In the case of Sidewalk Labs, there was this question about how much data and in what form it would take the data that was going to be collected in this neighbourhood by all these thousands of sensors that were going to be put in public space. And who is going to have first crack at it?

And I think that part of the conversation around privacy and security is that if a city is collecting this kind of data, it has a higher obligation to ensure that it’s used with intentionality and with due regard to the existing legislation than a private company. I mean, I go into my local store, I shop with my Visa card, Visa collects information on me, they sell it. That happens; that exists. Hopefully, there are some laws that limit how much they can share. I would argue that the public sector has a higher bar to reach. And so that’s why we need to be careful about who gets the data, how it’s used. And in some cases, that might mean more centralization. But within the context of the public sector.

SEAN SPEER: You write, “Cities, by virtue of their very complexity, can be particularly vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences.” What do you think Jane Jacobs, the famous urbanist who favoured a decentralized form of urban planning rooted in the notion of cities as “living beings,” would think of this trend to want to use big data to inform operational and planning decisions by cities and municipalities?

JOHN LORINC: I think she wouldn’t have trusted it. Her approach was very observational. She knew the city by virtue of seeing what was going on and listening. I think it’s an approach that I don’t think has a lot of cache anymore and certainly wouldn’t pass muster in any university. She was also the flip side of that was that she was very suspicious of a more technocratic approach to local government. She had a special disdain for traffic engineers. She didn’t think that that was a real discipline. So smart city tech is for sure a more technocratic approach to managing urban space and urban places because the rational idea is that you gather information and that the information will reveal solutions to whatever your problem is. And maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s misguided, putting too much faith in just raw data and your ability to slice it and dice it.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up with a question about politics. How do smart cities graft onto our typical Left-Right political divide?

JOHN LORINC: In the main, not much, really. And so the asterisk on that is Sidewalk Labs, which was highly polarizing. I don’t think that it was polarizing along a Left-Right continuum so much as a business-concerned citizen continuum. It’s often overlooked in the storytelling about Sidewalk Labs that there were a lot of people in the tech industry here in Toronto who were very keen on this idea. And tech is a big industry in Toronto; that Waterloo-Toronto tech corridor is an important economic engine, and there were a lot of people who were quite excited about it. And then there were people inside those communities who were like, “Wait a minute, we don’t want to lose all our IP.” So it was clearly polarizing, but not in the typical way.

And I think that if you take out the Sidewalk Labs narrative for a moment, by and large, this is a pretty low-key activity that once in a while explodes. Another example is in San Diego, where the municipality invested a ton of money in these smart traffic lights that—sorry, smart streetlights—that were supposed to lower carbon and do a bunch of civic-minded things. It turns out that they were really good for police investigations, and this created a huge amount of controversy in that city. It took over local politics for a while. There was an interesting outcome to it, which is that there was recognition on the part of the municipality that you needed to have some way for the public and for citizens to look at these technologies and say, “Is this good? Is it bad? How could it be misused?”

So there is that now that overlay in the municipal governance in a lot of places that is responding to this kind of technology. That being said, it tends not to be a flashpoint, with a specific handful of exceptions.

SEAN SPEER: It seems to me that a basic assumption of smart cities is that we have the state capacity to oversee, manage, and leverage the insights of smart city technologies. What’s your sense about the state of municipal governance in Canada or elsewhere, for that matter? Are cities up to the task?

JOHN LORINC: No, I think that’s a big problem because even very large municipal governments like the City of Toronto, which is the, I think, the sixth or seventh largest government in Canada, don’t really have the chops to deal with the technology. And in the case of Sidewalk Labs, this is very cutting-edge technology. It requires a lot of expertise to understand what’s going on.

Municipalities buy buses and they buy asphalt and they buy playground equipment. They tend to spend less time on buying this very high-tech equipment. I mean, they have their own enterprise systems and their websites, and all of that. But it’s like another layer. The lack of capacity in the municipal government and also in Waterfront Toronto, which was the agency that originally did the deal with Sidewalk Labs, was glaring that this was a huge imbalance, that there was a huge knowledge imbalance.

SEAN SPEER: John, we’re speaking on April 25th, in the middle of a mayoral campaign in Toronto in which crime and public safety issues have loomed large. What are the opportunities and risks on that file when it comes to smart city technologies?

JOHN LORINC: A lot of money has gone into using technologies like sophisticated facial recognition and all sorts of biometrics. All of these can be considered smart city technologies, and the use of different types of surveillance in public space. So this includes surveillance of audio, not just visual. I was reading a little while ago that there’s an emerging technology where it’s not facial recognition, it’s gait recognition, so you can be identified by the way you walk. It’s highly sophisticated and very, very broadly used in China as a tool of state surveillance. So it’s an area to be approached with extreme caution.

The issue in Toronto with crime and safety is primarily about this series of incidents and attacks on the TTC, a couple of which have been very tragic in their outcome. I think it’s misguided to believe that you could just solve these with technology, or just solve them with policing, or just—these are not one-tool issues. You may create, I think, a false sense of security on the part of the public by putting lots of cameras in all sorts of places. There are already lots of cameras, and stuff happens. So it’s not an area where I would say that you would want to lead with the technology; you might use it as a tool, and the tool has to be deployed in a way that’s consistent with our rights and freedoms, including the right to privacy.

SEAN SPEER: Where are some low-hanging fruit where the use of smart city technologies may not buck up against some of those potential political flashpoints but could improve both municipal governance but also the lives of urban residents?

JOHN LORINC: When I was doing the research for this book and for the fellowship that preceded it, I started in my mind dividing up the technologies between technologies that take people as their focus versus those that are focused on systems or infrastructure.

I think climate is a big area where there’s a huge amount of potential. We have to change our electricity grids, both at the regional and national level, but also local distribution grids to allow them to deal with the energy transition—more electrical cars and devices, and so on. That’s a classic opportunity for smart city technology. You have to use a lot of analytics, AI, and big data. These are complex systems, and they’re very well suited, and you get the outcome that you want, right? Which is enabling a grid to become greener or less dependent on fossil fuels, for example. So that’s a good application.

I found a bunch of those in the Netherlands, for example, where you have—here’s a country that’s mostly underwater, and they have a very long history of a great respect for civil engineering and the use of engineered solutions to keep the sea out. Part of the toolkit now is more digital solutions, technologies that work on forecasting weather more accurately, or modelling flood waters and sea level rise, and so on. And those are all very positive applications and I would say that they could be used safely and unduly without having a negative influence on individuals.

SEAN SPEER: A big part of the book draws on the research that you carried out on different smart city models around the world. We’ve talked a bit about Europe already. Are there models that you encountered, John, that seem to solve for the problem of civilian oversight when it comes to the use of smart city technologies? Where should Canadian policymakers be looking to build in that role for the public to, in effect, govern the use of smart city technologies?

JOHN LORINC: So the city of Barcelona is very far ahead on that. It’s generally considered to be the most forward-looking. There’s big appetite for using smart city technology in the municipality, and also a lot of mechanisms and governance and civilian oversight that encourages discussion about these technologies. It encourages trials and demonstrations and finding a way for these technologies to fit into what municipalities do in a progressive way, which is to say they’re inclusive of public opinion. They are not overly technocratic. It’s not a culture where there’s the technology tail that is wagging the dog, right? This was our problem in Toronto with Sidewalk Labs, which was that, “Hey, we’ve got all these solutions, and you can buy some of them.” It’s more the other way around, which is, I think, the way it should be.

SEAN SPEER: Permit me a slightly different type of question. As someone who’s thought and written a lot about cities, do you think that the recent flight that we’ve seen from cities is durable in an era of Zoom and hybrid work? If so, what do you think the consequences will be?

JOHN LORINC: I believe in bigger cycles. So cities are very durable entities, right? If you take the long view, you find cities that have gone into decline and then they come back. When I started my career in the late ’80s, there was a huge amount of concern about companies moving out to the suburbs. You could actually hear—now with thinking back on this, it’s so ridiculous—you could hear people say, “Toronto’s going to turn into Detroit; there’s going to be a hole in the donut.” And it didn’t come to pass quite obviously.

I think that there is this big, interesting reorganization of work that drives so much of what urban form is like. I don’t think it’s unhealthy; I think that people, they waste a lot of time in traffic, and in commuting. There’s a way of decongesting some of the economic activity in cities, but it’s very disruptive because just look at the transit, right? Huge amounts of public capital are tied up in transit, and the transit investment is based on a model of the commute. So if the commute is not quite what it used to be, then we have to adapt to that.

That being said, I think that basically, people like to be in social environments, and that drives the clustering that happens in cities. So I’m not pessimistic on this score. I think there’ll be change, but I don’t think it’ll be a gutting. That’s my feeling.

SEAN SPEER: John, let me put a penultimate question to you. As you alluded earlier, this book is the product of a multi-year fellowship where you’ve really dedicated yourself to understanding the smart city’s model and its application around the world. What are some of the things that you discovered that you think our listeners in particular and Canadians interested in public policy in general ought to know?

JOHN LORINC: Well, one of the big takeaways for me is that there are a fair number of examples of places where large property developers are using the smart city branding to attract investment to large mixed-use developments. In some cases, these are fairly privatized suburban enclaves that are on the edges of large developing-world cities. I just read about one in Arar, for example, and I don’t know whether they’re smart cities or they’re just very wired up with all the conventional wiring. Plus, the usual architecture that we find in newly developed cities. So one learning for me was that there are ways that you can misappropriate the phrase smart city.

The second is that we need to recognize that technologies are always around us. They make our cities better places. They do all sorts of things that enable us to live as modern people. But we have to also think about how they can be misused. In the context of public space, which is what I’m interested in, we need to ensure that when we’re using them in public space, that we’re satisfying the expectations that the public has of its information being used in ways that are consistent with our expectations of privacy, and so on and so forth. So that’s the second thing.

The third thing is that, and this is maybe a bit of my squeamishness around the Sidewalk Labs project, is that I’m interested in city building. Cities are durable; they last for a long time, and I wasn’t keen on the notion of the city as a lab. The city is a space of great innovation. There’s no question about that, but whether it should be a petri dish for tech companies, I’m not sure about whether that’s the right direction to go. So those are the three that spring to mind.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: Based on your research, do you think there’s a future for smart cities in Canada? If so, paint a picture of what it might look like.

JOHN LORINC: Oh yeah, no, absolutely, and it’s ongoing. So what happened with smart cities is that after Sidewalk Labs, I think, and then during the pandemic, the term got a little bit bedraggled. But there’s still a huge market for this technology. It’s global; it’s in Canada. And my ideal is that it becomes part of a suite of tools that municipalities and city planners use to improve the way our cities work. But in a very focused way where we’re mindful about what we want the technology to do and what we don’t want it to do. And in that way it becomes like this accumulation of technologies that we’ve developed in cities over thousands of years as just a piece of the city.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a fascinating window into, as you say, an ongoing, evolving topic that is going to touch Canadians almost wherever they live. The book is Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology and the Pursuit of Your Urban Utopias. John Lorinc, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

JOHN LORINC: Thanks very much.