The Benefits and Risks of Policymakers’ Use of Smart City Technology

By Emily Hamilton. Mercatus Working Paper, Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Arlington, VA.

The term smart cities refers to the intersection of connected devices (also known as the Internet of Things), big data, the urban environment, and city dwellers. Smart city innovations have been widely lauded for their potential to improve government services and government transparency.

Sensor technology creates the potential for congestion pricing, which could make government services more efficient. Access to big data can give policymakers the information they need to improve infrastructure maintenance. However, smart city innovations also carry considerable risk, including expansion of the surveillance state.

Risks to citizens’ rights are greatest when law enforcement agencies use smart city tools. Using a public choice framework, I explore the potential for smart cities to improve urban life and analyze the potential risks these technologies carry to violate citizens’ rights.

Smart city tools will be successful only if policymakers are mindful of the incentives that individual government officials face as they advocate for and operate these systems.

In her article Emiliy Hamilton brings forward the risks of the smart city:

  • Privacy risks to citizens. Although data sharing between agencies may improve bureaucratic outcomes, data breaches at the federal level cast doubt on local governments’ ability to keep data safe, and smart city tools also make possible the sale of personal data to private firms. Meanwhile, increasing governments’ capacity for surveillance raises concerns about civil rights and privacy.
  • Skewed incentives. Smart city tools also raise concerns about unhealthy incentives. For example, there is evidence that the statistics-driven policing tool CompStat motivates officers to patrol minority neighborhoods where they focus on minor, easily prosecuted crimes. These strategies divert resources from more important but difficult cases and erode trust between police and the communities they serve.
  • Cover for ineffective reforms. Politicians who lack the incentives to pursue meaningful change will often deploy technological “solutions” that fail to produce results. Examples in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia show that technological gimmicks can sometimes take the place of meaningful reforms.

PRIMO considers the smart city concept as in potential beneficial for establishing and improving public values, such within the boundaries of rules and settings of good public governance. ‘Smart city’ has to be considered as a set of tools and techniques which can be used by public leaders to improve the quality of common public values. The strategic use of this concept and the implications for possible downsides for security and safety still has to be addressed by public leaders. Anno 2017 sufficient and adequate strategy and policy on city level are far behind the actual developments. The awareness of the possible public risks is in it’s first phase and has not reached the level of a needed holistic approach by politics and government and did not yet fully enter the arena of good public governance.