Will Smart City Technology Really Make Our Places Stronger?


If you asked the average Strong Towns advocate what our cities most need more of if we want them to be financially stronger, they’d have just three words for you: data, data, data.

Because the more you study fragile places, the more you keep running up against just how few of the decisions that shape our built environment are truly informed by the unique and dynamic realities of our unique and dynamic places, much less the billions of unique and dynamic people who live in them. Sure, we host the public engagement sessions, put service request portals on our .gov websites, and conduct time-limited traffic studies. But while they might scratch the surface, none of those things ever seem to really capture of the astonishing complexity of the world we live in. At best, we simply haven’t figured out a way to continuously capture the data we need to make our places truly strong. At worst, we deliberately avoid the hard work of collecting that data—because it’s too inefficient, too messy… and too easy to just cross your fingers and say yes to another mega-project that sounds good on paper.

Strong Towns fans aren’t the only one troubled by the dearth of data in our city planning process—and that’s where the techies come in. In a new article in Curbed, Patrick Sisson outlined just a few of the smart technology solutions that are reaching for innovative new ways to make the city building process radically more participatory—and if they work, it could revolutionize not only the public engagement process, but everything about the way we do reporting, design, and more.

But even though we all love data, not all Strong Towns advocates are convinced that apps that help you report potholes and light poles that measure how many bikes go down the street are the answer to bringing more feedback to the city design process.

On this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea go deep into the many forms of civic tech, and try to suss out which ones are most (and least) consistent with a Strong Towns vision for communities that are authentically driven by continuous, meaningful bottom-up feedback. Along the way, they tackle some tough topics: are our city leaders asking their citizens the right questions about how they use their built environment? Can we ask those truly meaningful questions in the space of a single app, or even across dozens of them—or does community engagement need a more traditional, soulful approach? What is lost when we digitize data collection? What about embedded technologies like new high-tech traffic counters that don’t engage with stated human opinion at all? And most importantly: who on earth is the target market for apps like Smell My City?