Questioning Smart Urbanism: Is Data-Driven Governance a Panacea?

 at the Chicago Policy Review: “In the era of data explosion, urban planners are increasingly relying on real-time, streaming data generated by “smart” devices to assist with city management. “Smart cities,” referring to cities that implement pervasive and ubiquitous computing in urban planning, are widely discussed in academia, business, and government. These cities are characterized not only by their use of technology but also by their innovation-driven economies and collaborative, data-driven city governance. Smart urbanism can seem like an effective strategy to create more efficient, sustainable, productive, and open cities. However, there are emerging concerns about the potential risks in the long-term development of smart cities, including political neutrality of big data, technocratic governance, technological lock-ins, data and network security, and privacy risks.

In a study entitled, “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” Rob Kitchin provides a critical reflection on the potential negative effects of data-driven city governance on social development—a topic he claims deserves greater governmental, academic, and social attention.

In contrast to traditional datasets that rely on samples or are aggregated to a coarse scale, “big data” is huge in volume, high in velocity, and diverse in variety. Since the early 2000s, there has been explosive growth in data volume due to the rapid development and implementation of technology infrastructure, including networks, information management, and data storage. Big data can be generated from directed, automated, and volunteered sources. Automated data generation is of particular interest to urban planners. One example Kitchin cites is urban sensor networks, which allow city governments to monitor the movements and statuses of individuals, materials, and structures throughout the urban environment by analyzing real-time data.

With the huge amount of streaming data collected by smart infrastructure, many city governments use real-time analysis to manage different aspects of city operations. There has been a recent trend in centralizing data streams into a single hub, integrating all kinds of surveillance and analytics. These one-stop data centers make it easier for analysts to cross-reference data, spot patterns, identify problems, and allocate resources. The data are also often accessible by field workers via operations platforms. In London and some other cities, real-time data are visualized on “city dashboards” and communicated to citizens, providing convenient access to city information.

However, the real-time city is not a flawless solution to all the problems faced by city managers. The primary concern is the politics of big, urban data. Although raw data are often perceived as neutral and objective, no data are free of bias; the collection of data is a subjective process that can be shaped by various confounding factors. The presentation of data can also be manipulated to answer a specific question or enact a particular political vision….(More)”