Citizens of Zaragoza, Spain, now carry “resident cards,” with which they can check out library books, pay bus fare, and connect to free citywide Wi-Fi. Tech giant Cisco is currently helping the government of Chongqing, China, outfit street corners with half-a-million surveillance cameras. And in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics, IBM has built an Intelligent Operations Center collecting municipal data in the heart of Rio de Janiero.

Does it all sound a little like 1984? It should. With a majority of the world’s population calling cities home for the first time in history, and a billion of us predicted to be equipped with smartphones by 2016, the very technologies designed to make our urban lives easier are the same ones that would make any dystopian sci-fi fan pause.

Yet Anthony M. Townsend, senior research fellow at Wagner’s Rudin Center for Transportation, argues that in all the excitement over building sleeker, greener, more efficient cities, many officials and developers have overlooked the risks of this dependence on automation.

In his new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, Townsend looks not just to the future but also a hundred years in the past, mining everything from the industrial revolution to the 1939 World’s Fair for lessons about the forces that shape urban design and communication.

Far from a technophobe, Townsend, whose dissertation focused on the development of digital networks in urban spaces, celebrates all sorts of innovation—from the crowdsourcing work of “civic hackers” to a Twitterbot that monitors the line at Manhattan’s Shake Shack to a slum-mapping platform that helps Nairobi residents goad their government into completing public projects. But he’s not shy to point out what’s at stake—privacy, safety, and spontaneity—when governments turn to big corporations to streamline their operations.

“I’ve seen my share of gaps, shortfalls, and misguided assumptions in the visions and initiatives that have been carried forth under the banner of smart cities,” he writes. “And so I’m going to play the roles of myth buster, whistle-blower, and skeptic in one.”

NYU Stories caught up with Townsend to talk about clever apps, unexpected bugs, and how your smart city just might kill you.

photo: Anthony Townsend

Talking about urban technology tends to bring up a primal fear: that our smart cities could turn against us. Possible?
With all these algorithms churning away, there’s a lot we don’t know yet. If you look at the financial markets and the kind of flash crashes that have resulted from software bots interacting online in poorly understood ways, I think we could be setting ourselves up for similar situations in cities. One group of self-driving cars might start doing battle with another group for road space without even really knowing it. Infrastructure systems could fail. There are so many different ways that things could go wrong, and no one’s been talking about that. One of these days, a smart city or smart building is going to kill a bunch of people—and it’s just a matter of how it gets dealt with when that happens. In Japan, after the Fukushima meltdown, the entire Tokyo metro area went down, with no cell service and foot messengers running around. It was like the 18th century all over again, and you just can’t run a modern economy that way. We are going to need to design these systems to fail gracefully rather than catastrophically.

Aside from worst-case scenarios, what are the day-to-day risks of living in a city run on technology developed by companies such as IBM or Cisco?
Probably the biggest danger is privatization: Over the last decade we’ve seen a lot of companies figure out arrangements by which they can take over key parts of cities. Compared to poorly managed governments, they can often work more cheaply, do it better, and bring in new technologies, so there are lots of benefits. The risk, though, is that they get control of the infrastructure and may maintain exclusive ownership of the data that’s produced by these urban systems.

Many of the apps and gadgets developed to make it easier to navigate a city like New York aren’t necessarily useful in the developing world, where urbanization is taking place at the greatest rate. How can we make sure innovation benefits the poor, too?
I’ve worked with the World Bank and had a lot of conversations about this with other groups that are working in developing countries, and the keys are often capacity building and education in science, math, and technology. There are some big infrastructure issues when it comes to getting basic telecommunications into Africa: If you look at the map of internet connectivity there, it could just as well be a slave trading map from the 18th century or a colonial map from the 19th century. It’s all the same ports—so that geography is still being written. I also met a Dutch anthropologist last year who is studying the Bedouins in Mali, and she has documented how they’ve altered their historic trading routes to come into areas of cell phone coverage. They have a network of hilltops where they can get a cell phone signal to find out the price of grain for when they get to market the next week. I think that stuff is really fascinating.

There’s that old sci-fi scenario in which technology makes it possible for us to live completely isolated from one another, and cities become obsolete. Do you see it coming to pass?
Before smart phones came along, people were interested in virtual worlds and telecommuting, and predicted that these things would unglue cities. In fact, it’s the total opposite: these technologies make cities more interconnected, more vibrant, more cohesive. As a New Yorker, your mobile phone is like an accelerator of your lifestyle. It allows you to consume more, to experience more, to know more people—it sort of speeds up the city’s metabolism. That’s why I love things like Foursquare. Foursquare is about taking what a city is and turning up the dial.

So we shouldn’t worry about the virtual world replacing real life?
Well, the world might get weird faster than we can update the models. I worry that we’re putting too much faith in our ability to know the future. Cities have historically thrived on serendipity—just bumping into things and ideas. If you engineer it too much, that randomness starts to disappear. It’s almost like overbreeding a crop or an animal. It’s possible that by over-engineering our interactions in cities, we’re going to kill off what’s magical about them. I have no idea how you go about preventing this, but you can see pieces of this even now in the way people use social networks in public spaces. When I was in grad school at NYU, if you were waiting to meet someone at a bar and they were late, you started talking to the person next to you. And now?

Accumulating customers’ personal information seems to have become something of an obsession for companies these days. What’s their ultimate goal?
To me it looks like an arms race: Who can get more data and bigger computers and get better at making predictions faster and further out? That’s the basis for competition in most parts of the economy—you’ve got to protect your data if you want to survive. We may get to the point where it doesn’t matter if data gets stolen because the real value is in the analysis of that data. An analogy might be that sure, you stole my sugar—but you didn’t steal the recipe for the five-star dessert I’m going to make at my restaurant.

—Eileen Reynolds