The White House on Smart Cities

At the White House Smart Cities Forum today, Assistant to the President of the United States for Science and Technology Dr. John Holdren announced federal investments exceeding US$160 million in smart cities research. The forum highlighted projects addressing a range of urban issues including transportation, critical infrastructure and health. Partnerships that bring together government, industry and academic circles were celebrated and framed as best practice for advancing smart city development.
France Cordova, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), referenced AOL co-founder Steve Case as she described the current wave of the Internet as a time of integration with everyday life. Cordova highlighted three funding streams for the US$35 million directed by the NSF. Ten million has been marked for cyber-physical systems for smart and connected communities. The NSF will lead collaborative efforts with several agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Transportation. Cordova described the aim as furthering the computation, communication and control capacities of physical systems. The NSF will direct US$10 million towards the creation of ‘Living Labs’, described as “communities of practice that facilitate the participation of citizens and community organizations, as well as idea and application sharing, across cities and regions.” The Mozilla Foundation will play a prominent role in this project. The third project Cordova highlighted is the ‘Array of Things’ project based at the University of Chicago, which will benefit from US$3 million in funding. The AoT will publish open data gathered from sensors monitoring a range of vectors including air quality, noise, traffic levels and weather disturbances such as flooding.
The optimism of smart city technology continued with an academic panel that boasted: Farnam Jahanian, Carnegie Mellon University Provost; Steve Koonin, Director of NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress; and Anthony Townsend, Senior Research Scientist at NYU and fellow at the Data and Society Research Institute. At the very end of the question and answer period, facilitator Alaina Harkness asked the panel to comment on possible drawbacks or concerns about the push for smart city development. All three panelists agreed that privacy and security issues are areas of concern that require further research and policy development. Farnam Jahanian problematized the notion of informed consent as a guiding principle for privacy, pointing to the complexity of data streams. Steve Koonin raised the possibility for abuse of the data streams, and Anthony Townsend described the emerging networks behind smart cities as a potential security nightmare.
The integration of ‘computation and communication’ capabilities with critical urban infrastructure has raised concerns for decades. Truthfully, the smart city movement is just the latest in a series of technological advancements that the owners and managers of urban infrastructure have adopted. The shift to private ownership in the late 1990s accelerated the adoption of technology as a way of reducing operating costs. Cyber threats have largely remained just that: threats. However, industry experts are warning that the Internet of Things has created new vulnerabilities that are not understood by urban managers. Cesar Cerrudo claims that security in smart cities is, as it appeared to be in the White House Forum today, an afterthought. While researchers like Cerrudo have proven that smart cities are vulnerable to cyber attack, there continues to be a paucity of real world attacks. For the moment it seems the promise of ‘computation and communication’ is far too attractive to sully with talk about vulnerabilities.

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