Why high-tech “solutions” can’t solve many of our most pressing urban problems.
But higher tech is not always essential tech. Cities could instead be making savvier investments in cheaper technology that may work better to stoke civic involvement than the more complicated, expensive products being peddled by information-technology developers.
Of course, you’d never hear such an idea from the likes of I.B.M., which has plastered airports with ads about how its consultants help municipalities cut costs with its “Smarter Cities” analytics platform, or Cisco, which has teamed with Toyota and other companies to sponsor annual conferences about how to automate cars and gather information on urban activity through streetlight-mounted sensors. For these companies, the more complicated the technology, the more cities can save — aside, of course, from the eye-popping price tags of the technology itself.
To be sure, big tech can zap some city weaknesses. According to I.B.M., its predictive-analysis technology, which examines historical data to estimate the next crime hot spots, has helped Memphis lower its violent crime rate by 30 percent.
But many problems require a decidedly different approach. Take the seven-acre site in Lower Manhattan called the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, where 1,000 mixed-income apartments are set to rise. A working-class neighborhood that fell to bulldozers in 1969, it stayed bare as co-ops nearby filled with affluent families, including my own.
In 2010, with the city ready to invite developers to bid for the site, long-simmering tensions between nearby public-housing tenants and wealthier dwellers like me turned suddenly — well, civil.
What changed? Was it some multimillion-dollar “open democracy” platform from Cisco, or a Big Data program to suss out the community’s real priorities? Nope. According to Dominic Pisciotta Berg, then the chairman of the local community board, it was plain old e-mail, and the dialogue it facilitated. “We simply set up an e-mail box dedicated to receiving e-mail comments” on the renewal project, and organizers would then “pull them together by comment type and then consolidate them for display during the meetings,” he said. “So those who couldn’t be there had their voices considered and those who were there could see them up on a screen and adopted, modified or rejected.”