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the road ahead

In the still-only-imagined smart city of the future, you could summon a self-driving taxi to get home from a movie.

On your way home, the traffic lights might sense you coming and, as long as it’s safe, they could change as you approach to get you through faster.

But, what if that self-driving car switches up the route a little to make you buy stuff?

“What if that car goes a block over to take you past a Shoppers because it knows you have an Optimum card?” says Rob Shields, a University of Alberta professor who researches cities and public places. “By moving traffic to specific places, that could give someone a commercial advantage.”

We won’t be seeing autonomous taxis any time soon, but the smart-city movement has been getting plenty of buzz.

In May, Ottawa gave away $75-million in grants to four communities, the winners of a Smart City challenge that saw more than 200 communities across Canada pitch ideas to “improve the quality of life of their residents through innovation, data and technology.”

Despite the hype – and promises from technology and car companies that smart cities could solve congestion, ease parking woes and prevent pedestrians from getting killed – there’s still no agreement on exactly what a smart city is or exactly how it will be able to make our lives better.

Most definitions of a smart city involve using technology to keep better track of how people actually use cities – and that’s a big part of why companies are so interested, Shields says.

Traditionally, important planning decisions – such as designing roads, transit and the electricity grid – have been based on surveys that might be years old.

“A lot of planning is based on not excellent data,” says Martino Tran, assistant professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC. “There are assumptions that most people behave the same way – we all get up at the same time, we all go to work at the same time.”

He says that instead of a summer student sitting by an intersection and counting the number of pedestrians who cross, a smart city could use “citizen-generated data” from smartphones, sensors inside lampposts and sidewalks, connected vehicles and even your Instagram feed to keep track of where you go and when you go there.

“All of this stuff would be generating a lot more high-resolution data, and the idea is that this could then be used to inform the design and delivery of all the different urban services we have,” Tran says. “That’s a fair case and there’s a lot of potential, but there are hangups.”

While it potentially could make traffic flow better at intersections, set better transit routes or build bridges where they’re actually needed, all that information could also potentially be shared with private businesses who’d like to know what you’re up to.

Last month, Ontario’s privacy watchdog warned that Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ plans for a proposed smart city on Toronto’s waterfront would allow the data they collect to be linked to individuals.

There’s a potential for companies to track where you go – and what you buy when you get there.

“It gets harder and harder to be an anonymous window shopper,” Shields says. “It’s not just useful to the individual retailer, but also to the local business development district.”

That could mean you get targeted ads sent to your phone as you walk by a store. Or, tolls, taxes or user fees could be automatically deducted from your bank account as you pass through a particular area, Shields says.

That’s why governments need clear rules on how this information is shared and used, Shields says.

Otherwise, you could be losing privacy without getting much back in return. All the technology could just be another way to clutter up our lives and make us spend more.

“We might get somewhere faster, although it hasn’t worked that way so far,” Shields says. “But we also might just end up more continuously distracted because you’re booking this or paying for that – it’s extending the experience people have online to the streetscape.”

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