Are Smart Cities Something for Citizens to Embrace or Fear?

BorgI attended the inaugural Internet of Things World Forum the last week of October in Barcelona, Spain.  Part of the Forum was a walking tour of the city to show off all of the great IoT innovation that the city has implemented over the past few years to make Barcelona one of the smartest cities in the world today.  A few of the highlights are:

  • Smart citizen sensor.  A few of the attendees that worked for the city or the host company, Cisco, were wearing something described as a “smart citizen sensor” that was a box that could detect where a person was, what direction they were heading and provide greater personalized services from the “smart city” to the person.  The box itself was a prototype and the vision would be that the sensor itself could become part of a mobile device or embedded into an ID card or even clothing.
  • Connected bus stops. The connected bus stops shows real time travel information on large color screens to show optimized travel routes.  A citizen with one of the smart sensors can get up to date information on any travel delays that may impact their commute and provide alternate information.
  • Smart parking meters.  The meters are connected to a city-wide WiFi network and communicates real time information on their status (open or occupied) to a centralized system.  Citizens could access this information via a mobile phone application and can quickly find the nearest parking spot and, in theory, pay for the parking through the phone.  Everyone knows what a pain finding a parking spot is, this is something designed to alleviate frustration and generate more money for the city as it can maximize parking inventory.
  • Environmental city sensors.  There are a number of environmental smart sensors scattered across the city that can report real time information over the city-wide WiFi network.  Information such as temperature, noise, humidity, gas levels, and dust particle concentration can all be reported and analyzed, and the city can then take action based on “triggers” that are being watched.  The previously-mentioned citizen sensors can also be used as another source of data, turning the people into live environmental sensors.
  • Smart street lighting.  Sensors in light poles can detect moving objects such as people, animals, and cars and adjust the lighting levels accordingly.  Additionally, city maintenance can be alerted to outages and other damage.
  • Smart trash cans.  Barcelona has installed sensors on the trash containers city wide, enabling them to alert the city when they become full or emit certain odors that exceed a threshold.  This data can also be used to optimize trash pickup routes for on-demand services.  Lastly, the sensors can identify explosive materials that may be placed in the cans, conceivably helping thwart potential incidents such as the Boston Marathon tragedy.

The concept of a smart city certainly has a lot of appeal.  The combination of sensors and cameras all connected over a common network can make the city more efficient, cut costs, and provide better, smarter services to citizens.  This should be a win-win as city costs, paid for by the taxpayers, will go down while the level of service and the safety to citizens should go up.

However, the one common resistance point to this is the loss of privacy for citizens.  Granted, many of these services, such as smart meters, are “opt in” — meaning no one has to use the service if they don’t want to.  But what about a scenario where everyone’s drivers license becomes a city “sensor”?  Sure, it can now be used to provide real-time information about travel information on the smart bus stop, or to provide commuters with alternate routes — but at what cost?  Now the city knows the movements and actions of every citizen, and that is a cause for concern for many.

In my opinion, this fear is overrated.  First, the amount of data coming in is far too great for any city, even small ones, to monitor the movements of all of its citizens.  Also, we’re already being watched.  Every ATM, street corner, and toll booth has a camera on it.  GPS information from phones is widely available to law enforcement.  The crimes committed by New England Patriot tight end, Aaron Hernandez, was largely solved by credit card, cell phone, and camera information.

So I say, bring it on — make our cities smarter and safer. Personally, I’ll take the benefits over any perceived loss of privacy.  I understand there will be a percentage of citizens that won’t like the increased amount of “watching” that could be done, but to them I quote the Borg — resistance is futile.  Smart cities are coming in the not too distant future.

Image credit: JD Hancock (flickr) – CC-BY-2.0