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Perspective

A Smart City Is Rarely Smart Enough to Account for People’s Feelings

Smart cities are efficient, but tech can’t account for human emotion. In the Mission District of San Francisco, officials are learning to bridge the gap.
The Mission District, before the city added red bus lanes.
The Mission District, before the city added red bus lanes.Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Can technology solve cities? During economic booms, we tend to apply the philosophy of the zeitgeist too broadly. But what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.

The intersection of cities and technology is a perfect example. While well-applied technology and data analysis can vastly improve cities’ livability, relying on those tools to create a healthy, vibrant city is crazy. The tech sector’s focus on data collection and analysis locks them into a narrow definition of successful governance that focuses on the tactics of service provision while ignoring the bigger picture of community health. That messier, human side requires understanding a place’s values and personality, helping residents cope with change, and providing the infrastructure that supports the social fabric.