Smart Cities Overview

Friday , 6, September 2019

Smart cities hold great potential and solve all sorts of problems that our analog cities suffer from. So say the technologists that envision highly connected systems of sensors and devices that are managed by AI systems. How smoothly and efficiently our cities will be run they say, offering us many advantages based on that interconnectivity and alleviating so many current problems.

Smart cities seem to come with some inherent dangers too, such as the risk of security flaws being exploited. Being smart also means having lots of information about what is going on in the city, and this increases the odds of privacy issues arising from the gathering, transmitting, analyzing and storing of so much information including data about the people in a smart city.

We started this series covering smart homes and discussed how they were not always so smart after all. In the previous post we took a closer look at plans for Google smart homes, and the potential privacy and security issues brought about by having a home full of networked sensors gathering data. Now let’s consider a planned city where buildings, homes, cars, roads, drones, utilities and more are smart, and the city itself is managed by gathering, analyzing and acting on data collected by a variety of sensors.

From a smart home patent application filed by Google in 2018

Some things seem non-controversial like efficient water management, others seem rife with problems like predictive policing. In fact large data sets have a tendency to become problematic as they are aggregated and re-purposed. Responsib;e data management is perhaps the greatest challenge smart cities face.

Weighing public benefit against privacy concerns will continue to be challenging obviously. Consider what happened in New York City with old phone booths. Alphabet owned LinkNYC provides free Wi-fi now from those former telephone booths, and it’s funded by collecting data on users of the service. Was that a wise decision by New York City? Whose needs should urban design prioritize?

Tracking and analyzing traffic flows throughout the city is a daunting but important function. Optimizations in organization of traffic lanes, parking, and planning improvements to really address the current shortcomings are the goals. Equally important however, is tracking what the people are doing, where they’re going and when, how other decisions affect what those people do, and what sort of policies will best manage the city for all the humans.

An often cited example is motor vehicle traffic. A city designed to be smart can utilize some flexible street lanes going in a certain direction during high traffic times like the morning commute, and point most of them in the opposite direction for the afternoon cummute. Perhaps at other times the lanes on each side should be marked for parking. Smart roads that can change their lane marks on demand will enable cities to better manage traffic flow, choosing perhaps to change the direction of one way streets at certain times of day or in response to events.

There is not much focus on potential privacy concerns in smart cities yet, since there are no real models to hold up as examples. Groups involved in designing and building such smart cities are invariably thinking more about what can be done rather than how they can be done in ways that preserve personal privacy for inhabitants and people who interact with them.

For example, parking in busy areas can certainly be made more efficient by keeping track of which cars park where, and for how long. That data can be threatening however, if it is accessed by unauthorized people or organizations that want to know where people are and when. In the same way, electricity usage data is very useful but can also indicate when people are home and when they are away. These data are desired to drive efficiencies, but pose challenges in terms of collection and management.

Early glimpses we have of the future smart cities invite plenty of skepticism, and leave many concerned over privacy issues. Those who consider the adverse consequences of ubiquitous surveillance are fearful that we’ll end up with dystopian “big brother” urban spaces where nothing is private. When every concrete slab on sidewalks has sensors, pedestrian crossing lights can be timed as needed. Coupled with cameras however, the two data sets can be used to track the movement of individuals throughout the city.

Smart cities will generate incredible amounts of data, and it will be made useful by gathering it all together to analyze. After all, coordination among systems can lead to efficient utilization of resources and delivery of services. Security and privacy are going to be tricky, however. Some of the security implications aren’t yet clear, since security of the pieces is not the same as security of whole system. For the same reason software developers do integration testing on complex applications, cities with a myriad of smart networks connected and integrated will need testing.

So that’s our initial overview of smart cities – their promise and potential are enormous, as well as the ethical considerations and their privacy and security risks. To continue, we’ll take a closer look at the major components: smart buildings, smart vehicles and roadways, smart services and the issues these bring about.