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Special report: 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.

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, residents, 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 harnessing smart city projects to attract attract 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."

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