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Are smart cities just a utopian fantasy?

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Songdo, South Korea began its life as tidal marshland. Now it’s leading the charge into the future of smart cities. Once home to small-scale fishing operations, Songdo comprises massive, LEED-certified buildings, an efficient garbage collection system and even an island for rabbits.

The project began in 2000, when 500 tons of sand were poured into the marshland, laying the foundation for architectural achievements like the Northeast Asian Trade Tower, a 68-story building that is now the tallest in South Korea.

While Songdo is nearing completion and the flashy, meticulously designed buildings certainly suggest an eye on the future, much of what makes Songdo impressive lies under the surface. For example, the entire city is connected by an underground network of pipes that serve to funnel garbage directly from residents’ apartments into the highly automated waste collection plant. The garbage is automatically sorted and then recycled, buried or burned for fuel. This might be Songdo’s most avant-garde integration, and only seven employees are needed to handle the entire city’s garbage.

Songdo has the benefit of being a greenfield deployment, meaning that the city’s infrastructure could be designed beforehand, based on the predicted needs of the architecture and residents, instead of being integrated reactively, as is the case with most smart city deployments. Integrating Songdo’s garbage collection system with cities like San Francisco or New York would take years of legislation and astronomical amounts of money.

Not all of Songdo’s future-focused initiatives are out of reach for established cities, though. Songdo has sensors everywhere — to monitor temperature, energy use, traffic flow and the salt water canal that runs through the city. Sensor prices have dropped drastically over the past few years, allowing an unprecedented degree of connection even to established cities. Still, most cities have been reluctant to roll out full-fledged initiatives for smart city deployments. There’s great optimism surrounding the smart city discussion, but that optimism seems to wilt whenever someone asks “Who’s going to fund this?”

The city certainly isn’t going to, at least in the case of San Francisco. While SF does have an outrageous $9.6 billion budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, most of that will be funneled toward the mismanagement of the city’s disastrous infrastructure. It’s a fair question to ask why they can’t dedicate a portion of that budget to smart city initiatives, but maybe they were relying on the $50 million Smart City Challenge award from the federal government, for which they were a contender. If they had won the award, private contributions would have been added to the federal award, bringing the total for the initiative to $200 million.

The social factors of smart cities might be the most difficult to measure.

The federal government has dedicated $80 million in new investments toward its smart city program, but that money will be spread out over 70+ cities, bringing the average to a whopping $1.1 million per city. That might sound like a lot of money (it is), but when you compare it to, for example, the average price of repaving one mile of a four-lane road ($1.25 million), it isn’t exactly breathtaking. And even if you think the SF municipal government could do great things with more money, keep in mind that it’s the same government that allows somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people to sleep on the streets, while dedicating $224 million to keeping them off of them.

Current funding for smart city initiatives is only good enough for proof-of-concept trials, which would lead, at best, to a piecemeal approach to smart city construction. The reluctance is understandable — Songdo cost roughly $35 billion to build from scratch — but without genuine investment in changing the infrastructure of a city to fit smart city needs, widespread deployment will be riddled with integration and adoption issues. Maybe the biggest obstacle to its full deployment is one question: Are smart cities profitable?

There have been compelling waste-reduction efforts based on smart city sensor technology, like using sensors in the water supply to mitigate waste. While these efforts have resulted in corking budget leaks, they haven’t appeared to bleed over into other aspects of smart city deployments. Cities can use smart meters to make street parking easier, but that might actually work against them. If a driver finds a spot, they pay $2. If they get a ticket, they pay $72. That’s why some companies are offering cities analytics to optimize a police officer’s ability to hand out tickets — it’s all about profit.

Another example: Let’s say a city opens its streets to autonomous vehicle rideshares, and that those rideshares catch on. And that they catch on to the point that it eats into the Department of Transportation’s revenue, so they have to slash public transportation frequency to a point where it’s no longer viable to maintain a robust public transportation system. They end up having to subsidize rides for low-income commuters, as well as lay off a slew of public transportation workers. In this scenario, the government not only doesn’t make a profit, but it has to deal with the headache of transitioning its transportation system and the social upheaval that comes with massive layoffs.

The social factors of smart cities might be the most difficult to measure or engage with, which is probably why we haven’t heard very much about them. Smart cities seem abstracted from the cities themselves, as evidenced by the unwanted consequences of LinkNYC’s free Wi-Fi program. If you aren’t familiar with LinkNYC, the goal is to replace payphones around NYC with free Wi-Fi kiosks. These kiosks come equipped with tablet-like touchscreens that allow anyone to browse the web. At least they used to.

A few weeks after the program went live, LinkNYC had to disable web browsing on all of its public tablets, for obvious reasons. If it doesn’t seem obvious to you, let me list some of the ingredients in this debacle: homeless people, substance abuse, free video streaming and a public space. One of my favorite headlines about this misuse of the project is, “Wi-Fi kiosks have become living rooms for vagrants,” which was in the NY Post. My favorite excerpt, though, is from the Chicago Tribune: “ ‘It’s free. That’s the best part about it,’ said a tall man drinking a beer out of a paper bag as he watched an R. Kelly video at a terminal in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.”

That pretty much says it all. The unintended social consequences of smart city projects are a real concern, and a technological imbalance is at the heart of it. Smart cities are clearly not intended for the homeless, but homeless people are a reality of cities — you can’t just ignore them. Smart cities seem to be taking hold most effectively in areas where there’s significantly less income inequality and crime. For example, the United States ranks 63rd on a list of nations by largest income inequalities, while South Korea, where Songdo is located, ranks 129th. The United States’ intentional homicide rate is also more than five times greater than South Korea’s.

Every smart city deployment affects different groups of people in different ways. While some drivers might appreciate the traffic flow optimization that comes with cameras on traffic lights, others will bemoan the surveillance state. A major question to grapple with is how to assuage (usually reasonable) fears while improving efficiency and standard of living. When the Songdo project broke ground, plenty of fishermen lost their way of life, but instead of giving them a bus ticket and wishing them good luck, the South Korean government handed them urban farm plots as a way to keep them going. This is the level of understanding and foresight that’s needed for successful deployments.

A common complaint about greenfield smart city deployments is that they’re antiseptic — they lack character. When cities are designed and deployed as a single unit, they don’t carry the cultural vibrancy of a city built organically in response to the needs and desires of its denizens.

As someone who moved to San Francisco because of its cultural fabric, the piecemeal approach to integrating smart city technology is more appealing than the built-from-scratch approach, even though it’s less efficient and more expensive. It’s the only way to preserve the character of the city. We just have to hope the people who compose the city aren’t forgotten.

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