Tech Tent: Do we want our cities to be smart?

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Person in a smart cityImage source, Getty Images

These days it seems every city wants to be smart. That seems to mean putting sensors in everything and collecting vast amounts of data with the aim of making urban life more efficient and environmentally friendly.

On the Tech Tent podcast this week, we examine the smart city phenomenon. We hear from people who believe it promises it a greener future, and from one city where privacy campaigners believe it is giving more power to private companies for surveillance.

In Milton Keynes, we visit the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre. It is part of the town's campaign to get more of its motorists to go electric.

Visitors are shown a variety of cars, get information about range and charging options and - for a small fee - they can even borrow a car for a few days.

If they decide to buy a car, the local council may offer a charger on a lamp-post - also for a small fee, of course - or point the motorist to charging stations nearby.

There is even a plan to build a fast charging station which will give a full charge in five minutes, though that depends on new technology expected to arrive in electric vehicles over the next year.

Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at Milton Keynes Council, hope to allay common concern such as "the price of the vehicles, how they will charge them, and range anxiety".

It seems to be working. Uptake of electric vehicles in the town is running at twice the UK average.

Milton Keynes' other smart city initiatives include a trial of delivery robots that take small grocery orders to customers along the town's pavements.

There are also autonomous pods that will soon be shuttling drivers between car parks in an attempt to keep traffic out of the town centre.

One thing they have not tried is electric scooters. They are now common in US and Chinese cities, but illegal on British streets under a law dating back to the 19th Century.

We visit Paris, where a clutch of e-scooter rental firms - many from California - are competing for business.

Parisians seem enthusiastic about this relatively cheap and green way of making short journeys. But there are already problems emerging .

The pavements are cluttered with dozens of scooters. People are riding them without helmets, sometimes with children perched on the front. It also looks as though there is an investment bubble that could see firms go bust, leaving the city with a mess to clear up.

Image caption,
E-scooters on the streets of Paris

And while we have heard plenty of enthusiasm for the idea of using technology and data to make cities a lot smarter, in Toronto there is something of a backlash.

The Canadian city has done a deal with a division of Google called Sidewalk Labs. It plans to turn a stretch of land on the waterfront into a smart district: a city "built from the internet" is how the promoters describe it.

But privacy campaigners are suing the government, claiming that the plan will involve handing over sensitive personal data to a private company.

Brenda McPhail from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association explains the group's concerns about giving free rein to a firm in the business of collecting vast amounts of data.

"Online, we increasingly understand that comprehensive data collection that permits very granular monitoring of people's activities and behaviours is harming individuals and groups," she says.

"We question why on Earth we think it's a good idea to import that big data model into our city streets."

The organisation behind the Waterfront Toronto scheme says that it has not yet received a plan from Sidewalk Labs, but once it does it will ensure that the public has a fair opportunity to provide meaningful input on the proposals.

The technology industry often assumes that developments such as smart cities are uncontroversial and that everyone will welcome something that could improve urban life.

But the public has grown sceptical about technology over recent years, so we can expect to see further battles like the one underway in Toronto.