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Are smart cities a dumb idea?

February 18, 2020, 5:43 PM UTC

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For designers, cities are the grandest of ambitions. To design a city is not merely to sketch buildings and boulevards, it is to create worlds and shape lives. Think of Periclean Athens, Ming Dynasty Beijing, Haussman’s Paris, Lutyen’s Delhi, or L’Enfant’s Washington D.C.

And yet, if you could live in a so-called smart city—conceived by the most celebrated architects and designers under the direction of a public-private consortium that included one of the world’s most powerful technology companies—would you?

The residents of Toronto aren’t so sure.

Robert Hackett, in a fascinating feature in the new issue of Fortune, explains how mounting public concerns about Big Tech and surveillance capitalism forced Toronto to scale back a bold plan to transform the unused Quayside waterfront site into a tech-driven, eco-friendly, laminated timber utopia.

The project enlisted some of the design world’s brightest stars, including architecture firms Gensler and Michael Green Architecture, as well as Thomas Heatherwick Studios. Their ideas seem truly ingenious.

And yet, as Robert reports, “the project has been mired in controversy, amid an outcry over data mining and objections to the civic encroachment of a powerful corporation.” The corporation in question is Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban infrastructure company led by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff. 

Quayside’s boosters (among them prime minister Justin Trudeau) hailed Sidewalk Labs as an ideal partner because technology holds the key to challenges that will vex many cities in years to come: creating jobs, reducing crime, delivering health services, conserving energy, minimizing environmental damage, and eliminating urban sprawl. Detractors said that Sidewalk Labs’ plan to install data sensors in public areas raises privacy concerns and cedes far too much control over municipal governance to an unelected corporation.

The Quayside contretemps highlights the uneasy alliance between designers, technology companies, management consultants, and government planners as they contemplate the future of cities, which are already home to more than half the world’s population. By 2050, an expected 2.5 million more people will live in urban areas.

Urban planners have talked about making cities “smart” for more than a decade. The McKinsey Global Institute defined “smartness” in cities as “using data and technology purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.” International Data Corporation estimates global spending on “smart cities” initiatives will reach $189 billion by 2023.

But some architects and designers have grown wary of the term. Rem Koolhaas famously criticized the concept as a rhetorical ploy used by tech firms to elbow architects out of the conversation about urban life. Why is it, he wondered caustically, that smart city proposals, always seem to depict cities “with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colors” and treat residents like infants? “Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression?” (Sketches for Quayside are no exception.)

Meanwhile, China is already building smart cities. The current Fortune also includes a vivid—some will say disturbing—essay by Grady McGregor detailing the myriad ways technology, big data, and surveillance commingle in China’s most successful smart city, Shenzhen.

Cities, not to mention journeys to and from them, feel particularly perilous these days with the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. As many of you know, we’ve rescheduled Brainstorm Design 2020 to December 9-10. I’m happy to report that most of our speakers already have confirmed their participation on the new dates. Sign up for your invitation here.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

New deals. Frog (styled as frog), one of the design consultancies synonymous with Silicon Valley, announced a new business model. Partnering with venture capital firm Tuesday Capital, frog will now own a stake in the businesses for which it provides services. Frog isn’t new to investments—in 2014 itset up FrogVentures, an early-stage incubator—but this deal augments the firm’s opportunities to earn short-term revenue and work with new clients while cementing the role of design in the business-building process. [Fast Company]

Healthy design. Speaking of frog, its design for pelvic-exam startup Yona Care reflects a trend: The millennial-friendly rebranding of healthcare services, including everything from bubbly visual identities to offices that look good on Instagram. As digitally-native companies (Oscar, Tia) compete with massive, staid institutions like Aetna and CVS, the hope is that this investment in experience design can entice new, young consumers. [AIGA Eye on Design]

Conflicts of interest. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York has ousted its director, Caroline Baumann. The decision follows an opaque investigation into whether Baumann inappropriately leveraged her influence while buying a dress and choosing a venue for her recent wedding—scruples that the Smithsonian, as a government-funded institution, takes very seriously. In solidarity with Baumann, who led the museum’s recent revamp and modernization, six board members have since resigned, putting future donations at risk. [The New York Times]

Yoto's clock radio-like audio player.
Courtesy of Yoto

Smart play. Screen-free toys are increasingly hard to come by (remember the Silicon Valley nannies paid to keep phones away from their charges?), but Yoto bridges the gap between Luddism and wired playtime. Designed with help from Pentagram, its clock radio-like audio player uses inserted cards and knobs instead of touchscreens. It’s a clever interaction: Kids can engage with technology without the dizzying distraction of apps and tabs; parents can stop worrying about their children becoming phone-addicted zombies. [Dezeen]


Why the modern city needs a makeover by Clifton Leaf

Business gets ready to trip: How psychedelic drugs may revolutionize mental health care by Jeffrey M. O’Brien

20 maps charting the rise of the modern megacity by Nicolas Rapp and Brian O’Keefe

Apple’s coronavirus problem by Don Reisinger

5 big ideas for fixing global cities’ most daunting challenges by Lydia Belanger and Emma Hinchliffe


Why “De-growth” Shouldn’t Scare Businesses from Harvard Business Review

Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Lost Notebook from Wired, excerpted from Steven Levy’s Facebook: the Inside Story

The World’s Smartest A.I. is Still Dumber Than a Baby from OneZero

The hidden design failure that’s costing consumers trillions from Fast Company


The more new technology becomes part of our lives, the more we'll change to accommodate it.

“Is this a joke? Yes. No. We’re not sure.”

It definitely sounds like a joke: In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, a Bay Area designer started selling N95 respiratory masks printed with a user’s likeness, making it possible to unlock a phone screen while avoiding airborne viruses. “If you enjoy late stage capitalism,” its site reads, the masks cost $40.

Resting Risk Face won’t become a reality any time soon; Danielle Baskin, the designer behind the pseudo-spoof of a project, says that she won’t print prototypes while countries around the world face a mask shortage. Technically, the mask wouldn’t work anyway, because facial recognition technology relies on 3D mapping. (Since the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese facial recognition startup Megvii has actually applied for a loan to develop technology that can identify people wearing masks.)

And yet, Resting Risk Face reveals something interesting: The more we’re conditioned to new forms of technology, the more we’ll go out of our way to make other aspects of our life compatible with them. Take the new prototype for a bracelet that emits ultrasonic signals. Designed by two computer science professors at the University of Chicago, it’s meant to momentarily block Alexa or Siri from recording sensitive information. In The New York Times, journalist Kashmir Hill considers how such devices could force all sorts of shifts in how we interact:

“Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware, recently said homeowners should disclose the presence of smart speakers to their guests … welcome mats might one day be swapped out for warning mats. Or perhaps the tech companies will engineer their products to introduce themselves when they hear a new voice or see a new face. Of course, that could also lead to uncomfortable situations, like having the Alexa in your bedside Echo Dot suddenly introduce herself to your one-night stand.”

Of course, we could just pass up on the convenience of owning a voice-activated speaker in the first place. The total effect of these supplementary devices is perhaps best summed up by food writer Helen Rosner, in a tweet on Resting Risk Face: “gorgeously layered levels of dystopia.”