New Report: ‘Smart City’ Projects Offer Illusory Progress

These Tech-Heavy Plans Purport to Solve Complicated Social and Economic Issues, but Plans Actually Undermine Local Democracy and Expand Surveillance, Authors Say

NEW YORK- So-called “Smart City” programs that purport to use technology, data and corporate partnerships to solve social problems or improve government services and infrastructure, often fail to achieve their objectives, according to a new report released today, “Smart-City Digital ID Projects: Reinforcing Inequality and Increasing Surveillance through Corporate ‘Solutions.”

The new report specifically examines an emergent form of smart-city projects called digital identification (“digital ID”). These projects seek to integrate financial services or products, transit payment functions, and access to government services. A global review of such projects shows that the promises of smart-city projects are often unmet, while the risks or tradeoffs associated are not adequately assessed or communicated to the public, say the authors Mizue Aizeki, Deputy Director of the Immigrant Defense Project, and Rashida Richardson, Assistant Professor of Law and Political Science at Northeastern University.

The report details a contested effort to pursue a digital ID project in New York City. Advocates fought off an ill-conceived plan to add financial services and smart-chip technology to the City’s municipal ID, the IDNYC. The report offers timely insights on the risks and tradeoffs of digital ID projects as well as best practices and policy recommendations considering Mayor-Elect Eric Adams recently announced plans to create a centralized “MyCity” digital portal for all city services and benefits where residents can use a “chip-enabled” City ID.

“In New York City, a project that community advocates had built in partnership with the city administration to provide access to a state issued ID to all New Yorkers, was almost turned into a surveillance tool at the height of the Trump Administration. It also was presented as a quick-fix solution to deep-rooted racial and economic inequity, threatening to undermine decades of local community-based economic justice work. The IDNYC experience highlights that even well-meaning government and corporate interests can heighten the risks for vulnerable communities—and the potential risks are exacerbated when those communities are not fully respected stakeholders in government plans,” said Mizue Aizeki.

The report also offers best practices and policy recommendations for smart-city project development and implementation. The recommendations offer best practices and approaches for: 

1. Creating meaningful public and stakeholder engagement 

2. Anticipating potential abuses and proactively create safeguards 

3. Implementing transparency and accountability practices 

Professor Richardson said, “we hope that the report’s distillation of the concerns and failures of smart city projects helps public officials think critically about such projects and the best practices and recommendations in the report offer a great starting point for how to ensure constituent needs are addressed, rather than corporate solutions.” 

You can read the full report here: bit.ly/smartcities_IDs