5 Reasons Smart Cities Should Proceed with Caution

Smart city technology isn't a fad — in urban planning circles, it's widely seen as a steppingstone in the evolution of cities. Some concerns, however, must be addressed before everything goes digital.

(TNS) -- The world is madly in love with digital information — especially when it comes in tidal waves. Algorithms wade through terabytes of data to help Amazon tell us what to buy and to inform Match.com's suggestions on who'd make a charming couple. They're indispensable to investment bankers, and they're why Google Maps can tell us the best way to get from Palatine to Palos Park.

Increasingly, big data is becoming a go-to tool for cities, in a form called smart city technology. Programmers have been devising algorithms that tackle the typical urban to-do list: ease gridlock, conserve water and power, map and track emerging crime hot spots.

Smart city technology isn't a fad — in urban planning circles it's widely seen as a steppingstone in the evolution of cities. Chicago is hooked on the idea: City Hall is in the midst of an ambitious program to install beehive-shaped sensor boxes throughout the city that will absorb data on everything from air quality and flood-prone street corners to asthma clusters.

City government is right to embrace the idea of Chicago becoming a "smart city," a concept that at its core is all about improving livability. Nevertheless, there are reasons why Chicago and other cities should proceed with caution. And no, we aren't thinking only of the difficult finances that make it tough for Chicago to buy paper clips, let alone acquire citywide tech advances.

1. In Washington, D.C., an Argentine security researcher sat down with his laptop near Capitol Hill and hacked into the city's traffic sensor network. According to The New York Times, he turned red lights into green lights, and green lights into red lights. His point was made: Cities can't move forward with smart city technology until officials adequately secure their new and their old technology from hackers and cyberterrorists.

The encryption regimen has to be solid. Vendors who build and install smart city infrastructure should be well-vetted. Regular testing to ferret out vulnerabilities is a must — as is a fallback system of manual overrides, available in case someone hijacks the technology.

2. The driverless car concept is showing up in several cities' smart city blueprints. But what isn't showing up are nuts-and-bolts details that explain how driverless cars will be integrated into the urban landscape. Will lanes have to be wider? Will cities require less parking? How will traffic signals integrate with driverless technology? Of course, we're still far from the day that driverless cars become as ubiquitous as taxis. But the technology is moving fast, which means the logistics needed to utilize that technology should keep pace.

3. Priorities, people! In India, smart city technology is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's legacy-leaving crusade. He is embarking on an $18 billion effort to connect 250,000 villages to the Internet. Before he does that, however, he may want to tackle the reality that many of those villages lack decent roads, adequate drinking water or access to a reliable source of electricity.

4. Sensors are a bulwark of smart city technology — and in many of their applications, they gather data from smartphones and GPS-equipped cars. But in every city there are segments of the population that don't have high-end smartphones or cars with GPS. How helpful is smart city infrastructure if it doesn't cull data from all corners of a city? Will governments that require seat belts also require information transponders?

5. Deeper questions persist about privacy protection. Not only do we need assurances that this technology is not about surveillance, we need the transparent means to double-check those assurances.

There have been early, intriguing success stories. In Barcelona, widely regarded as the gold standard for smart city technology, motorists know where to park thanks to sensors implanted in the pavement, while in city parks, sensors in the soil switch on irrigation systems when the dirt gets dry. In terms of scale, the data gathering system Singapore is crafting is expected to be even larger.

Still, as cities latch on to smart city know-how in bigger numbers, it's wise to remember that the driving force behind smart city endeavors should be the civic benefit they provide — not the profits they create for the Ciscos and IBMs that get billions from smart city contracts. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that by 2025, the market for smart city technology should reach $1 trillion annually in Asia alone.

Smart city technology is on its way — to Chicago and, just as surely, to its suburbs. It's inevitable, and too promising to ignore. But diving in head-first is never the right call. We need to feel right about the utility of the technology, and feel right about safeguarding it, before we flick on the switches.

©2016 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.