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What We Really Need Are Good ‘Dumb’ Cities

  • 1.  What We Really Need Are Good ‘Dumb’ Cities

    Posted 07-17-2019 10:36 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-17-2019 10:29 PM

    "I'm an Engineer, and I'm not buying into 'Smart' Cities!

    Sensor-equipped garbage cans sound cool, but someone still has to take out the trash."[1]

    So asserts Dr. Shoshanna Saxe, PEng (Ontario)Assistant Professor, Civil and Mineral Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

    Please consider stepping back from"Leading-Edge Technology" solutions and discuss Dr. Saxe's perspectives to, at least, the following examples from her article.


    Q1. "We accept regular disruptions in internet and cellphone function as a fact of life. Technology ages rapidly, with glitches increasing common only a couple of years into its life. But would we accept the same rate of disruption in, say, our water and power services?"

    Q2. "New technology in 2015 will be outdated before 2020. If we widely deploy smart tech in cities, we need to be prepared to replace it every few years, with the associated disruption and cost. But who will assume those costs?"

    Q3. "Managing all the sensors and data will require a brand-new municipal bureaucracy staffed by tech, data-science and machine-learning experts. Cities will either need to raise the funds required to pay a tech staff or outsource much of their smart city to private companies. Since current average salaries for tech workers are typically higher than for public employees, such a bureaucracy is likely to be expensive. If the answer is to outsource that staffing to private companies, then cities need to have frank conversations about what that means for democratic governance."

    Q4. "The most critical question, however, is whether having a smart city will make us meaningfully better at solving urban problems. Data and algorithms alone don't actually add very much on their own. No matter how much data a city has, addressing urban challenges will still require stable long-term financing, good management and effective personnel. If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller."

     Q5. "Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities - cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. For many of our challenges, we don't need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas. 

    As we consider the city of the 21st century, we do well to remember that the things we love most about cities - parks, public spaces, neighborhood communities, education opportunities - are made and populated by people, not technology. Tech has a place in cities, but that place is not everywhere."

    [1]Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/opinion/smart-cities.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_190717?campaign_id=2&instance_id=10896&segment_id=15275&user_id=c3eaadcf782adabd39a34eab0c5d264c&regi_id=653809560717  downloaded 17JUL2019

    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880

  • 2.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-17-2019 11:49 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-17-2019 11:49 PM
    Interesting observations and some valid points. But, I read them as great reasons for CEs to be at the forefront of the smart city movement. We can't stop it. My impression (along with some evidence) is that almost every city has been having discussions about implementing smart city technology for years, have well-developed implementation plans, and are investing aggressively to implement technology where it makes sense. Hopefully, CEs are at the forefront of these efforts. If not, we will be left behind.

    Donald Hayes
    Research Environmental Engineer

  • 3.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 08:18 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-18-2019 08:17 AM
    I agree with the premise, but so far intelligent designs appear to be most applicable to traffic engineers.  This is where the real cost advantage is obvious.  Highways, roads, and streets that are over 50 years old in congested cities cannot be changed easily.  Streets in Boston date back to horse and carriage days.  The only way to improve them is with electronic smart technology.  Something as simple as a digital sign can provide valuable traffic information.  We don't have a good track record of maintaining physical infrastructure, but hopefully these smart systems are easier to budget for and more accessible to workers.  I also saw some live police pursuits in CA recently, the officers tapped into the traffic lights to stop traffic and save lives. 

    We have also had many discussions here regarding rotaries.  There are many residents in my state who are struggling to make sense of the them in a village that recently received a cluster of 4.  They are a "new" feature but are they considered "dumb" infrastructure because they do not rely on traditional traffic signals?  I suppose this would be a good example of the concept presented.  The amount of construction required on the project was extensive and if the residents continue to revolt against them, tearing them up would prove costly.

    Lastly, I would note that the concept of dumb infrastructure leaves me with a vision of a brutalist future.  I was reading about Boston City Hall and Chandigarh recently.  When we leave a structure to the next generation, are we leaving something to be treasured or burdensome?  Boston City Hall will stand forever, but should it?  Is it worthy of historic recognition or an eyesore that will be costly to bring down?

    Chad Morrison P.E.,M.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI
    (401)231-4870 EXT 2207

  • 4.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 08:15 AM
    It is kind of funny that the people pushing hardest for smart cities and the use of sensor-laden technology are salesmen. I admit to being a space-age tech geek and imagine an era of wonders using that technology. However, to put it in perspective, the residential street I now live in was resurfaced back in 1985. I was a young technician staking out that project. It is now getting to the point of possibly being paved again, thirty-five years later. In that same time frame I remember having a few years old Commodore 64 computer. IBM PC computers at that time were still mostly running MS-DOS. The standard disk for both systems was a 5 1/4" floppy. There was no USB drive. Try finding a computer to run a floppy 35 years later. With an obsolete computer like a Commodore, try finding something to run its software. If you are savvy you can run an emulator on a PC and hack an old floppy drive to open up old software and data but it won't be worth the effort. My street effectively lasted longer than the technology.

    The "Smart" in the Smart Cities is knowing when to use it and how effective it will be in the long run from a budget perspective. Being a first adopter of a new I-phone can be impressive among your friends but being the first adopter of new technology for a city may put it behind the curve in the future when a newer and better tech takes its place. Which it will inevitably do.

    Yance Marti P.E.,M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer IV
    City of Milwaukee
    Milwaukee WI

  • 5.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 10:23 AM
    The salesmen get all the media attention and they have something new and shiny every year. Smart cities are just an extension of what we have already done in treatment plants. Think of the real world applications more like an expansion of SCADA systems we already use into a wider application rather than the trendy consumer gadget market taking over. It is not a replacement of the "dumb city", but a building block added to it. Being able to monitor the status of a valve and operate it remotely doesn't change the underlying piping system, but adds efficiency.

    I do not foresee systems having short lifespans and almost instant obsolescence. Like SCADA, I see systems having a longer life cycle and individual components being upgraded rather than wholesale system replacements as the norm.

    Ron Zagrocki P.E.,M.ASCE
    Aliquippa PA

  • 6.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 10:23 AM
    Very well thought out.  I agree that reliance on AI or automation has its limitations.


    H Ben Faulkner P.E.,M.ASCE
    Spotsylvania VA

  • 7.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 10:25 AM
      |   view attached
    I took a swing at cities in response to Sam Florman's suggested banning two books that focused on cities and human needs.  Seems like only yesterday but I'll stick with my call to match human needs to cities.  I can remember the example of Pruitt-Igoe, lauded for the use of lift slab technology but creating a cesspool for the human spirit.  Haven't we moved beyond "dumb"?

    Kim de Rubertis P.E.,CEG,D.GE,F.ASCE
    Consulting Engineer
    Cashmere WA
    (509) 782-3434


  • 8.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-18-2019 02:22 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-18-2019 05:11 PM
    Here's a resource that seems valuable to this discussion: the ASCE Future World Vision  https://www.futureworldvision.org/

    It makes you think about exactly how smart cities will evolve into the future.

    Stephanie Slocum P.E.,M.ASCE
    Engineers Rising LLC

  • 9.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-20-2019 12:31 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-20-2019 12:30 PM
    This was a very prescient article. How things have changed since then. I will have to re-read it after reading the Dubos and Ellel books. The main point that of Forman seems to be control. There is the idea of technology being completely out of control, which is a misnomer, and it being in control by the wrong forces for the wrong reasons. This is always the real fear - who maintains control? Will there be "backdoors" to hardware and software that allow control by someone who shouldn't have that access? In the current war of words between China and the US, this has already been discovered. This could pose serious problems for any infrastructure dependent on that hardware or software.

    In the past engineers haven't had to worry about security of the infrastructure systems they build. But now in some cities that have been targeted (New York, Boston, DC), security needs to be part of the design process. How could a future Pruitt-Igoe development be built so that it doesn't become a cesspool? Were there design elements omitted that allowed it to be controlled by the wrong forces for the wrong reasons? Here in Milwaukee, all of the post-war public housing projects are being rebuilt to make them less oppressive.

    Yance Marti P.E.,M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer IV
    City of Milwaukee
    Milwaukee WI

  • 10.  RE: What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities

    Posted 07-19-2019 12:12 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-19-2019 12:11 PM
    I completely agree with both Mr. Hayden and Mr. Hayes.  I'm a water resources RCE and have been consulting for 30 years.  My concern is the acute sense of efficiency at the expense of keeping knowledge in the brains of those on the front lines - operations and maintenance.  The more technology advances, the taller the "pyramid" of knowledge gets, and the more we remove ensuing generations from the foundation of engineering principals.  We can't continue to increase the information and innovation pool for the next generation that needs to take it all in.  Sadly, foundational knowledge gets purged.  Technology advances are overwhelmingly in the data sector which is centralizing information that makes our engineered systems more and more vulnerable.  GIS and computer-aided design are wonderful things, but we must find a way to temper their movement, or ensure good old-school methods remain at the ready.  A technological 'bubble' has already begun.  As a society, we must find a way to use technology responsibly, control its advance, and start letting air out of the bubble before it pops.

    Charles Marr P.E.,M.ASCE
    Independent Consultant
    Whittier CA