Axios AM Deep Dive

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June 29, 2019

🏙 Today's Deep Dive goes inside the global "smart cities" race to redefine how we live in the 21st century.

  • Coming July 10: Kim Hart's new Axios Cities newsletter! Sign up here.
  • Smart brevity count: 1,179 words (<5 minutes).

1 big thing: The human hurdles to smart cities

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

It turns out that one of the biggest hurdles to the dream of hyperconnected "smart cities" isn't technology — it's humans, Kim writes.

The big picture: Making cities smarter is more of a business model and governance challenge than a technological one.

  • Aligning the interests of everyone involved — city councils, telecom firms, utilities, app developers — is often a political quagmire.
  • And discussions are happening with the backdrop of increased skepticism of big tech companies — many of which are trying to sell tools to cities.

A foremost pain point is who controls the data generated by millions of sensors and cameras.

  • "The last thing we want is a smart city of surveillance. Freedom goes out the door," says Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner for Ontario, Canada, and a city privacy expert at Ryerson University.

Rising housing prices are another hurdle. Some of the largest and most expensive metro areas — such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles — have been among the most hospitable to smart city discussions. But Americans are finding it harder to afford these areas in the first place.

  • Mid-sized cities — such as Columbus, Kansas City and Phoenix — are also harnessing smart city projects to attract young workers and the startups and big companies that want to employ them.

The smart city movement is driven in part by tech-savvy millennials who have different expectations for their communities.

  • But for many cities, managing homelessness, hiring teachers and fixing crumbling highways will have to come before developing a smart parking app.

"Younger generations are more demanding of their leaders," said Sameer Sharma, who oversees Intel's smart cities initiatives. "They want governments to be more responsive."

Go deeper: The race to become "smart cities"

2. Cities are the new data guzzlers

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

From getting a license to paying taxes, we routinely give cities granular data on who we are, where we live, what we do and how much we earn, Erica Pandey writes.

  • Why it matters: A smart city can vacuum up details like your location or daily habits — even though you probably haven't agreed to it.

For example: New York's LinkNYC WiFi hotspots, which also have cameras, can analyze images of people passing by particular kiosks. Over time, images could be linked to their identity and other sensitive data, like credit scores.

  • Theoretically, that information could then be used to place ads for payday loans around that kiosk, says Katya Abazajian, Open Cities director at the Sunlight Foundation.

The explosion of data and always-connected items — from umbrellas to dashcams — will lead to new, unpredictable applications.

  • For example, sensors could track how frequently you go to the gym or cameras could see how often you run red lights — data that insurance companies might be interested in, Abazajian said.

3. So some cities are writing privacy policies

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Seattle, Oakland and New York City have laid down privacy guardrails for how data gathered in the cities will be used, Kaveh Waddell reports.

These cities hope to avoid the controversy in Toronto, where a popular uprising threatens to derail a massive smart city project backed by Google's sister company, Sidewalk Labs.

  • Torontonians expressed concerns about who would control the sensitive data collected by sensors.
  • In its master plan released last week, Sidewalk Labs suggested establishing an "independent data trust" to set privacy rules for all companies involved in the city's new waterfront development.

4. Poll: The generational gap in surveillance technologies

Data: Survey Monkey online poll on smart cities; Survey Monkey online poll on facial recognition. Total margin of error for both surveys is ±2.5 percentage points; Poll methodology; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Survey Monkey online poll on smart cities; Survey Monkey online poll on facial recognition. Total margin of error for both surveys is ±2.5 percentage points; Poll methodology; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Most Americans are comfortable living in a smart city (65%) and support the use of facial recognition technologies by local police and governments (61%), Jessie Li writes.

But while wariness of smart devices and smart cities increases with age, so does support for surveillance technology, according to Axios-SurveyMonkey polls on smart cities and facial recognition.

  • Older adults appear to have more discomfort with connected technologies, except when they’re perceived to prioritize safety.
  • Young adults, who have grown up using technology, are less wary of connected cities but more wary of direct surveillance.

5. 5G boost (for a few)

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

If cities are only as "smart" as the data zipping between sensors and devices, the "smartest" places will be those equipped with the speediest broadband to ferry the ever-expanding streams of data, Kim writes.

What's happening: All four national wireless companies have installed 5G service in parts of cities. For example, on Friday, T-Mobile released a 5G “boost” in parts of Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, L.A. and New York.

  • But there are few 5G devices available, and coverage is extremely limited because the signals can't travel far.
  • Plenty of smart city features, like parking spot sensors, can be built with older wireless technologies, too.

At least initially, it will be affluent people who'll be willing to buy new 5G-compatible phones. That means the well-off neighborhoods are likely to get 5G first — and experts worry lower-income areas won't have equitable access.

6. Most and least affordable cities

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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Around the world, people are streaming into big cities — but owning a home there is out of reach for many, Steve LeVine writes.

A recent survey by Demographia looked at 309 metros in 8 countries.

  • Of these, just 9 housing markets were judged to be "affordable" — meaning that the ratio of average housing prices to income was 3-to-1 or less. The most affordable were Pittsburgh, Rochester, N.Y. and Oklahoma City.
  • But 29 cities were severely unaffordable, including 13 in the U.S. The worst was Hong Kong, with a ratio of 20 to 1. Vancouver was next at 12.6, and Sydney at 11.7.

7. Scooters, cities clash over rider data

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Scooter fleets are popping up across the country, and cities want access to rider data in exchange for letting them operate, Kia Kokalitcheva writes.

L.A. spearheaded the "mobility data specification," a format for transferring transportation data between cities and electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime.

  • Cities say they need real-time location tracking to keep scooters from ending up where they're not supposed to be.
  • But sensitive data like credit card information would stay with the scooter or bike company.

The other side: Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jamie Williams argues parking enforcement doesn't require individual trip data, which can be analyzed to identify riders.

  • She said the push for trip data could open up access to other transportation data, like Uber and Lyft rides.

8. Making cars pay to drive

Collage of architectural photos

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

New York is about to become the first city in over a decade to implement congestion pricing, Felix Salmon writes.

New York's scheme could be the first to aim primarily at revenue generation, with relatively little effect on traffic. To charge cars, it would use the same technology that toll roads have used for decades.

How it would work:

  • 666 Fifth Avenue sits on a 61,755-square-foot plot of land. When the Kushner family paid $1.8 billion for that building, the purchase price worked out to about $30,000 per square foot.
  • At that rate, the land under a Cadillac Escalade would be worth $3.4 million. Put that Escalade on the street outside 666 Fifth Avenue, however, and it pays nothing for the privilege.
  • Once New York implements congestion pricing, that Escalade will probably pay around $14 to be able to drive around midtown Manhattan.

9. 1 fun thing: Flying taxis

A photographic rendering of what a future "Skyport" would look like, where planes fly and land on ports. A cityscape and sunset in the background.

What an urban mobility skyport hub in L.A. could look like, from Gensler. Photo: Gensler

Future air taxis will need a place to land, Joann Muller writes.

What to watch: Skyport mobility hubs, like Gensler's CitySpace concept, would be central access points where air taxi passengers can connect with ride-sharing vehicles, e-bikes, e-scooters and public transit.

Go deeper: