Why Smart Cities Might Not Perform as Well as 'Dumb' Ones

University of Toronto civil and mineral engineering professor Shoshanna Saxe is supremely unaffected by all the hullabaloo surrounding smart cities. In her opinion piece in today’s New York Times, she articulates a set of serious concerns about the bureaucratic and logistical ramifications of smart cities that should give us all pause.

“They will be exceedingly complex to manage, with all sorts of unpredictable vulnerabilities,” she writes. “There will always be a place for new technology in our urban infrastructure, but we may find that often, ‘dumb’ cities will do better than smart ones.”

While plenty of folks have raised concerns about data privacy within the smart cities model, few have given thought to the management nightmare that they pose. According to Saxe, smart cities will “require a brand-new municipal bureaucracy staffed by tech, data-science and machine-learning experts. Cities will either need to raise the funds required to pay a tech staff or outsource much of their smart city to private companies.” Opting for the latter raises serious questions about oversight and democratic governance.

Furthermore, the short lifespan of most technologies means that whatever technologies are installed will be quickly outdated. Upgrading our cell phones and laptops on a regular basis is one thing. Upgrading city infrastructure quite frequently is another.

“If we widely deploy smart tech in cities, we need to be prepared to replace it every few years, with the associated disruption and cost,” writes Saxe. “But who will assume those costs?”

Certainly, Saxe’s piece is a bucket of cold water in the face of those who believe the technotopia, in the form of smart cities, is near. But judging from the wobbly experiments in cities ranging from Toronto and Boston to Santa Maria Tonantzintla, Mexico, perhaps such a bracing wake-up call is needed.

As my colleague Hans Neubert wrote earlier this year, these early experiments have already taught us that any technology deployed in the service of making a city smarter needs to be thoughtfully directed towards “pre-identified and necessary purposes, and that the urban citizen receives a tangible benefit from them.”

Likewise, Saxe argues that smart solutions “might be cheaper in the short run, but that alone doesn’t make them better.” Instead of digitizing or quantifying every street corner, plaza, and alleyway in order to squeeze out more value per square foot, cities should be thinking about what needs the technology actually fulfills, how users will engage with it, and how it will improve their experience of the environment.

In other words, as Neubert says, “smart cities need to be humanized.”

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Brenden Jackson
Brenden is a writer and editor based in Gensler’s Washington, DC, office. Though he writes extensively about architecture and interior design, he is especially interested in issues tied to urbanism — from the ways that planning and design shape individual urban experiences to the challenges that cities face on social and environmental issues. Contact him at .