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Experts Discuss the Future of Technology in Cities in STS Panel

The Harvard Kennedy School houses the Program on Science, Technology and Society.
The Harvard Kennedy School houses the Program on Science, Technology and Society. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By Emma H. Haidar, Jo B. Lemann, and Tyler J.H. Ory, Contributing Writers

A group of former mayors and professors discussed the future of cities at a panel hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society on Friday afternoon.

The panel focused on the concept of the “smart city” — a city that uses technology to solve city issues and improve communication between city leaders and their constituents — and the implications of integrating new technologies into city planning.

Moderator Diane E. Davis, an Urban Planning professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, kicked off the panel by warning the audience of the drawbacks to the smart city.

Though innovative ride-sharing and transportation start-ups like Uber fill a gap in the market, Davis said they come “at the cost of neglecting high-need areas and populations from socioeconomically vulnerable groups.”

“We found that the planning and implementation processes that can make possible the adoption of sought-after smart mobility policies may also inadvertently worsen mobility and accessibility gaps,” Davis said.

Former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said he observed the unintended consequences of using “smart technology” during his time in office.

According to de Blasio, New York City partnered with the private firms Intersection and ZenFi Networks to turn payphones into kiosks through LinkNYC, which would offer local information and free WiFi, but the kiosks have not been used as planned.

“It turned out that a lot of individuals who did not have something better to do were using the kiosk to get service to watch pornographic movies,” de Blasio said.

Attendee Dennis F. Kunichoff, who works at the François Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, pushed back against de Blasio for framing his story about the WiFi kiosks as a technology failure instead of a failure on the city’s part to deal with the homelessness crisis.

In response, de Blasio said these technologies are often hard to implement in a way that immediately makes progress on “a multi-generational project.”

“The kind of religiosity with which we talk about smart cities and innovation for innovation’s sake is often met on the ground with an entirely different reality,” he said.

Panelist Rafal Dutkiewicz — the former mayor of Wrocław, Poland — noted that his city uses a “knowledge-based economy” requiring “really good cooperation between businesses and academia” and an “open and international society.”

During the panel discussion, Jason B. Jackson, an assistant professor of political economy at MIT, urged academics not to lose sight of the past when considering the future of cities.

“As we think about the kind of possibilities for new urban technologies, it’s useful for us to think back to the past as well to see what we can learn from earlier experiments with creating novel new types of cities,” Jackson said in an interview with The Crimson after the event.

Maarten A. Hajer, a professor of Urban Futures at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, talked about the role urban planning experts can play in making cities more sustainable and less reliant on fossil fuels.

“Academics must stop only analyzing the past, but start to provide these alternative futures, these aspirational futures, that show that the post-fossil city is worth living,” Hajer said.

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