Smart Cities Require Smart Policy

By now, you’ve probably heard of so-called smart homes, but you may not have heard of the next logical step: smart cities. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds – in fact, it’s happening now.

American cities are already adopting new technologies intended to improve urban living. You have used smart city products if you’ve ridden a bike from a bike-share system, paid for street parking using your phone or paid for a toll road using an E-ZPass. Industry leaders who design these products promote them as a way to make city services more useful and efficient, and they have had some notable successes. However, the emerging smart city trend poses some risks to residents, which policymakers have not given sufficient attention to yet.

In a new Mercatus Center study, I analyze the benefits that smart city innovations offer, while calling attention to some of those risks.

Boston has been a leader in improving city services through innovation. The city has implemented an app called Street Bump, which helps identify where roads need to be repaired. When Bostonians download the app, the accelerometers in their phones catalog any unexpected bumps that they hit while driving. The app has helped the city identify and repair over a thousand sunken manholes.

In another successful example, Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics developed a system for centralizing citizen complaints. When residents see a need for a streetlight repair or snow removal, they can use an app called Citizen Connect to report it. Residents can then track the city’s progress in resolving the issue, ultimately receiving a photo of the repair in successful cases.

In both cases, Boston has used smart city apps to improve the transparency of city operations. In turn, this transparency has given city employees better incentives to complete their work by sharing their successes with interested residents.

Not all smart city innovations are so benign. City governments increasingly have the ability to collect and use their residents’ data.

For example, states and drivers have adopted E-ZPass technology to allow drivers to pass through toll plazas quickly and easily. Drivers likely know that their E-ZPass payment data is made available to the jurisdictions that manage the tolls they pay. However, some states are also gathering driver data using microwave sensors to track traffic congestion. This data is made anonymous, but it is collected without users’ knowledge.