Smart Cities

These 5 charts show what US city residents think about smart city tech

A new Emerging Tech Brew-Harris Poll survey shows how US city dwellers feel about smart cities.
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Illustration: Morning Brew, Photo: Barry Winiker/Getty Images

· 6 min read

This article is part of our series on smart cities—click here to visit the interactive hub and explore other stories.

These days, a smart city professional is more likely to talk your ear off not about cutting-edge technology but instead something much more analog: the average city resident’s wants and needs.

That’s because some experts say there’s been a shift in posture recently, from flashy to functional. Gone are the days in which would-be smart cities dream only of electric sheep, the new conventional wisdom goes.

Such a shift to prioritize residents’ needs raises an important question: What does the average American city resident think about smart city tech anyway?

To find out, we asked the Harris Poll to run a nationally representative survey of US city residents in late July. In the poll, we asked residents about their support for, awareness of, and engagement with a variety of smart city tech in their cities, from air-quality sensors to facial recognition.

The overwhelming majority of our 3,185 respondents (87%) thought it was important for their city to invest in emerging technologies. But that doesn’t mean every resident of every age in every city supports every piece of emerging technology equally.

In fact, there were pretty big differences in levels of enthusiasm, awareness, and engagement with smart city tech depending on who you ask or what you ask about. Let’s dive in.

By the tech

Most of the technologies we asked about, like public wi-fi access or smart waste management, had solid support from US city residents.

In fact, more than half of respondents were at least somewhat supportive of every technology except one: autonomous robotaxi services. Just 42% of respondents somewhat or strongly supported robotaxis in their city, while more than one-quarter opposed them. The remaining 32% were indifferent.

  • For comparison, the next worst-performing tech was the highly controversial facial-recognition tech, which 56% of respondents said they strongly or somewhat support. Just under one-fifth (19%) said they somewhat or strongly oppose the tech and another quarter said they’re indifferent.

The robotaxi finding is particularly notable because just a few years ago, in the late 2010s, robotaxis were a popular technology among the US smart-citerati.

In 2015, the US Department of Transportation held a contest to win $50 million in smart city grant money, and all seven of the finalists mentioned autonomous vehicles in their proposals. Only one, San Francisco, has an up-and-running commercial robotaxi network. Others, like Portland, Oregon, and the winner of that contest, Columbus, Ohio, began implementing parts of their proposed AV programs but quickly pivoted away.

Robotaxis did enjoy stronger-than-average support in the only two US cities where some residents can hail a driverless ride, with 55% of Phoenix residents saying they somewhat or strongly support the tech, and 51% of San Francisco residents saying the same.

Even among residents of those cities, robotaxis received the least enthusiastic support of all the technologies we asked about, and more than one-fifth of residents said they somewhat or strongly oppose the tech.

By the generation

At last, millennials win at something.

Millennial and Gen Z respondents were much more likely to report using smart city tech than older respondents, with 44% of Gen Z and 51% of millennials saying they use it at least weekly. On the other hand, just 37% of Gen X respondents reported using smart city tech at least weekly, while only 16% of boomers said the same.

  • Almost half (48%) of boomers said they never use smart city tech, while 27% of Gen X respondents said the same.
  • 13% of millennial respondents and 7% of Gen Z said they never use the tech.

And across the board, Gen Z and millennial respondents reported being more aware of smart city tech than older generations, with millennials reporting the highest level of awareness of every tech we asked about.

This tracks with a general truth: Younger generations tend to be much more engaged with new technology than older generations. Rates of device ownership, social media usage, and…online-ness…are all higher for younger people than they are for older people, per Pew Research, although the gap has narrowed over time.

To that end, here are the smart city technologies Gen Z and millennial respondents rated as most important:

  • Gen Z cares the most about air-quality sensors and the least about autonomous vehicles.
  • Millennials care the most about public wi-fi access and the least about…autonomous vehicles.

By the size

When it comes to smart city preferences, city size seems to play a pretty significant role.

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Respondents that live in cities with metro areas of under 1 million tended to view such tech as less important than their larger-city counterparts, and they were also less engaged with or aware of smart city tech in their cities.

But it’s not that those who live in smaller cities think smart city tech is unimportant.

The vast majority (84%) of respondents from these cities still view smart city initiatives as somewhat or very important. They’re just a lot less enthusiastic about it than those who live in big cities—more than half (52%) of larger-city residents called smart city tech very important, while just one-third (33%) of smaller-city residents said the same.

There’s a similar trend in the data when we look at engagement with smart city tech. In cities with metro areas of more than 1 million, 46% of respondents said they use smart city tech at least weekly. Just 26% of those living in smaller cities said the same. That could be explained in part by residents of smaller cities having less access to smart city tech, or they may simply be less into it than those living in larger cities.

And in general, larger-city residents reported being 20 or more percentage points more aware of certain technologies in their city, like robotaxis, smart waste management, or facial recognition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, smaller-city residents were also less likely to view their cities as particularly innovative, with just 16% saying they find their city very innovative, compared to 43% for larger cities.

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