Can smartphone connectivity and shared data solve the problems of crowded cities?
The New Yorker ⎢ Elements ⎢ July 29, 2016
Technology to create smart cities—like this LinkNYC kiosk—may help ease overcrowding and traffic issues.
IN THEIR BOOK The Intellectual Versus the City, published in 1962, Morton and Lucia White pointed out that from Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s brainiac class has generally regarded cities with fear and distaste. Here was one instance at least in which erudite opinion was shared by the masses. Urban America hadn’t yet reached its nadir—that would come later, in the Bronx-is-burning, Son of Sam summer of 1977—but it was on its way. Even then, however, the pattern was starting to reverse itself, with once fashionable neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Boston’s South End drawing “urban pioneers” of the sort whose parents and grandparents had abandoned the areas decades before. The problem many cities face today is not how to lure people back but where to put them all. In San Francisco, where the poor were squeezed out years ago, even the middle class is feeling threatened by the proliferation of techies who reverse-commute to suburban Silicon Valley. The Times recently reported that midtown sidewalks are so crowded that people have taken to walking in the street.
It’s a bit curious that this is happening just as digital technology infiltrates everything. If the automobile caused us to disperse, the information age seems, paradoxically, to be drawing us back together. Widespread predictions that the Internet would free us all to telecommute from the greener pastures of outer Podunk have not been borne out. Being hyperconnected in the digital dimension appears only to make us want to feel hyperconnected in the physical as well. Which is fortunate, because cities are generally beneficial in any number of ways—more efficient than suburbs and small towns in their use of energy and other resources, more conducive to the free flow of ideas, more tolerant, more, well, urbane. The question is whether technology will be able to support the millions of people whom cities are now attracting.
Cities have always existed in a state of tension with the engineering that sustains them. In The Ghost Map, an account of the cholera epidemic that terrified London in 1854—more than five hundred dead in ten days, almost all of them living within a couple hundred yards of one another in the reeking slum that was Soho—Steven Johnson describes how modern cities were made possible by the advances in epidemiology sparked by the outbreak. Lacking basic sanitation for its nearly two and a half million inhabitants, not to mention the slightest understanding of how disease spreads, London could not have carried on. But the construction of modern sewer systems put it and other European cities on a path to sustainable growth, not all that long after the Industrial Revolution started emptying the countryside and pulling its residents their way.
We’re at another inflection point today. Manhattan isn’t the only place where the sidewalks are spilling over: the United Nations reports that nearly three-quarters of the people in Europe now live in cities, and eight out of ten people in North and South America do as well. Asia and Africa are still mostly rural, even with the rise of megacities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, and Lagos—but before 2050 half of those countries’ populations are expected to be urban. Even though cities in general may be environmentally more efficient, twenty million or thirty million is a lot of people. How are cities to handle them all?
In their newly published book, The City of Tomorrow, Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel of M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab propose data as the solution. The “smart city” they envision is a hybrid of the digital and the physical, a “triumph of atoms and bits” that yields a sort of augmented urban reality. The smartphone is key. We can use it to corner Jigglypuff or Pikachu during bouts of Pokémon Go; we can use it to live-stream the latest killing by a cop, or killing of a cop, from the front seat of the car. The smartphone, Ratti and Claudel assert, is “the always-on prosthetic device” that transforms us from ordinary humans to cyborgs, the flow of life-sustaining fluids within the body augmented by the flow of information-bearing electrons without. Geolocation apps—Uber, Waze, Tinder, Grindr—give us a personalized experience of the city around us, an experience whose potential we are just beginning to imagine. A proliferation of free Wi-Fi hot spots—like LinkNYC, the network of mini-towers that will soon provide one-gigabit-per-second Internet access across New York City—will further the sense of “ambient intimacy” that such connectivity engenders.
The LinkNYC kiosks—sleek metal wedges that stand nine and a half feet tall—will offer not just free Wi-Fi but also device charging, interactive maps, free phone calls, a red-button 911 hotline, and other things yet to be imagined. Developed by a consortium that includes Qualcomm and Intersection, a new company formed by a corporate sibling of Google known as Sidewalk Labs, they boast a modular design that will enable outdated components, whether hardware or software, to be lifted out and replaced at will. In a separate project, Sidewalk Labs is building a software platform called Flow that will integrate smartphone and sensor data with data from Google Maps to help city officials deal with traffic nightmares. Working with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the designers of Flow envision an engine that will feed real-time traffic information to officials, enable them to reroute vehicles and adjust parking options on the fly, and let them run “What if?” simulations that could provide a solution to chronic bottlenecks. The whole thing suggests a twenty-first-century digital version of the “ghost map” that solved the mystery of London’s nineteenth-century cholera epidemic—a map compiled by a physician who, in a Victorian-era demonstration of the value of data, plotted the home location of every victim and traced the source of infection to a single polluted well at the outbreak’s epicenter.
Systems like LinkNYC will be key components of Flow. But the Link kiosks will pay for themselves by displaying onscreen ads that will be “hypertargeted” to people within range, based on data their smartphones silently provide. This explains why the smart city is being hailed as a breakthrough in marketing circles. And yet, contemplating the kiosk (or monolith, depending on your point of view) just installed outside my lower-Manhattan apartment house, I can’t help thinking about the “Credit Poles” in Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story. In Shteyngart’s unnervingly prescient satire, these ubiquitous, faux-rustic street fixtures display the credit ranking of every passerby in L.E.D. numerals—flashing red L.E.D. numerals, if the ranking isn’t high enough. Ratti and Claudel, citing the urbanist and author Adam Greenfield, write of “everyware,” an invisible network of sensors and cameras that finally achieves the ultimate dream of urban efficiency and security at the cost of anything resembling privacy. Will this be the end result of the digitization of the city, they wonder—or will it result in a bottom-up empowerment of the individual, as this month’s live streamings from Minnesota and Dallas suggest? Both, I suspect, at least in this country—and at least for a while. ■