Behind the curtain of smart cities: where do we stand?


NYPD security cameras.

As cities deal with the byproducts of increased urbanization: overpopulation, increases in energy consumption, and overall resource management, they have looked to improve residents’ quality of life by acquiring new technology and data processes to become “smarter.” 

Smart cities integrate information and communication technology into public infrastructure, which allows city service providers to better understand how residents are moving around and engaging with the city. As a result, smart technologies increase connectivity, monitor public spaces and resources, use and process massive amounts of data, and enable real-time analysis of city life. Despite the fact that this new integrated data system of governance promises more efficiency, the prospect of massive data collection, constant monitoring, and opaque algorithms should present serious concerns for city officials and residents.

Is open contracting the solution?

One possible approach to addressing these concerns is open contracting. Open contracting is a way to increase transparency and democratic involvement in public expenditures. In the case of smart technology procurement and contracting, open contracting could also allow citizens to understand how data about them will be collected, analyzed, and stored, if applied correctly.

Data and privacy

One of the main priorities for city officials, when they are considering implementing smart city technology, is data security and resident privacy. Concerns about privacy can be understood across three dimensions: 1) the type of data involved, 2) the purpose of data collection and usage, and 3) the organization of persons collecting and using the data. To ensure there is no ambiguity across these three dimensions cities should consider clearly outlining data usage and storage protocols. This includes addressing the following questions within the procurement and contracting process:

  1. Can data be leased or sold to third parties?
  2. Can data be used for anything other than the initial stated purpose?
  3. Can citizens access their own data?
  4. Can citizens opt out of having their data collected and stored?

Moreover, the centralized collection and storage of data pose risks of cyber-attacks and misuse of data by nefarious third-parties. Contracts with third-party vendors must also explicitly address proactive security measures, fail-safes in case there is an attack, and remuneration policies in the case of a data breach.

Corporate interests

Another concern is the influence that is exercised by third parties when a city takes on a smart city initiative. Many of these projects come as a result of collaborations with private entities in the form of public-private partnerships (PPPs). PPPs, in theory, are great opportunities for cities and companies to advance their mutual interests and benefit the public, especially where cities may not have the technical expertise or capacity to build and implement new technologies. While PPP’s have been used to increase safety in Las Vegas, increase efficiency, and promote equity in NYC, among other things, some have questioned whether companies advocating for city adoption of new tech are motivated by profit rather than by the public’s interests.

To address this PPP’s must be well-designed to balance private interests and public objectives, especially if they are going to benefit from tax-payers dollars. Cities need to establish their principles and values around inclusive technology applications before adopting new tech. They need to assure responsible, proactive transparency within and around PPP agreements. A transparent procurement and contracting process should address the following questions:

  1. Are there guidelines in place to assess if cities are seeking value for money, and not just the lower price?
  2. Does the procurement benefit the citizenry? Is there a sufficient interest in the results of this project?
  3. Who will own any technology (software and/or hardware) or data created during the public-private partnership?
  4. Is there a plan for long-term partnership and maintenance?

Our project to set the standards for smart cities

With smart city development becoming the norm, residents must reckon with being monitored, recorded, and having massive amounts of data stored about them. In order for them to do so, they need to know what technology a city is using and how it is being used. In other words, they need transparency about their local governments. Without the necessary accountability measures, the possibilities of misuse, bias, and other negative effects increase. To address this, city officials should consider how they will provide for the necessary transparency in smart technology procurement and implementation.

This summer, I will be analyzing how cities currently address data security and privacy issues within their smart technology policies. I’ll be surveying best practices in any range of policies that regulate data ethics and disclosure in the context of new technology and smart city solution adoption. I will examine how open contracting practices allow residents to participate in decisions around data collection, storage or use introduced by new smart-city technology through third-party vendors.

The public sector needs these transparency and accountability best practices around smart technology policy and procurement to ensure that cities are truly made built and by residents. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” 

For more information about this work or to share a smart city policy in your city, email me at