Tom Simonite 09.21.2020
The first big US city to prohibit private businesses from using the technology reflects rising skepticism of new tools and concerns about fairness.
PORTLAND’S 2016 ENTRY for a $50 million federal contest called the Smart City Challenge described a Pacific Northwest tech-topia. It promised autonomous shuttles, trucks, and cars on city streets, through partnerships with Daimler and Lyft. Sensors from Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs would monitor people walking and biking around the city to analyze traffic patterns.
The Rose City didn’t win, and four years later there are no self-driving Lyfts on its streets. One thing that has changed: Portland’s conception of what makes a city smart.
This month, Portland adopted the nation’s most restrictive laws on face recognition, banning private as well as government use of the technology. The new rules originated in part from a small city office called Smart City PDX that has sought to redefine the buzzword it is named for. Instead of hunting for “smart” new tech, it aims to mediate tech’s impact on citizens. “The focus became the work we need to do before we deploy new technology, especially in BIPOC communities who don’t trust the city to necessarily represent their interests,” says Kevin Martin, who leads Smart City PDX.