Monday, June 3, 2013

Is Technology Enough?

The smart city concept has been a popular model for solving urban problems, and there is valid support for the level of excitement surrounding it. Technology for urban planning has been developing quickly, specifically with the proliferation of incredibly useful planning apps, innovations in digital infrastructure and data gathering tools such as wireless sensor networks. All of these have helped us better monitor, analyze, plan, and implement urban guidelines. However, we should remain cognizant of the past and keep in mind how long-lasting and difficult it is to reverse urban planning projects. New technology can and will be extremely helpful in building our cities intelligently, but technology alone will not be enough to solve our urban issues.

Brent Toderian was the chief planner for Vancouver, BC from 2006-2012. In an interview done in October he discussed the potential failures of technology-focused solutions to urban problems. Though it's a short interview, I feel this is a key point to discuss for our generation of planners. Smart cities and innovative technologies have been pushed and marketed and sold to planning agencies at every opportunity by companies such as IBM, Google, and Siemans. They had a strong presence at this years APA national conference in both the booths and the presentations. It's important to keep in mind that while there is great value in many of these new technologies, they are not the whole of the solution as some would argue.

In his interview, Brent Toderian brings up the example that "[t]he best technology for running transit will not work in a city that is low density, separated, and sprawled." The central issue is still intelligent city building that will support smart infrastructure. Many of these technologies are outside the abilities of a city's budget and would require seriously neglecting a number of vital projects in order to fund digital infrastructure. So while I think adopting new technologies is important, especially in the field of global competitiveness, the fundamentals of good planning need to remain the foundation for city building. It's the difference between smart cities and intelligent cities. 

I think an illustrative example of this is the self-driving car. While this is a significant technological innovation that can have incredible benefits in terms of improving both safety and congestion in urban areas, it can also be the source of disaster for cities if they are not grounded in good planning. There is a very real possibility for self-driving cars to become individual transit vehicles. They would be single-occupancy vehicles with all of the individual benefits of transit (less stressful travel, ability to multitask) with none of the public benefits gained. 

This will be an important balance for our generation to address:  to not be stagnant in our technological adoption, but to also keep ourselves grounded in good planning. The allure of technology as the grand solver of all problems should be tempered by past experiences and deliberate implementation.


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