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Destroyed homes and cars are shown Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP) Destroyed homes and cars are shown Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP)

Destroyed homes and cars are shown Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone August 14, 2023

No, Hawaii fires weren’t set intentionally to turn Maui into a ‘smart island’

If Your Time is short

  • Officials have not determined the cause of wildfires that have killed dozens of people in Hawaii, but there’s been no public evidence they were set intentionally.

  • The urban planning concept of smart cities was among many topics discussed at a January technology conference in Maui. None of the research papers presented at the conference discussed turning Maui into a "smart island."

The wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, had killed 96 people as of Aug. 14, making it the deadliest U.S. blaze in the past 100 years.

Many social media users are spreading baseless conspiracy theories about the origin of the fires, which began Aug. 8, saying they were set intentionally by the government for nefarious reasons. 

The narrator in one Aug. 11 Instagram video speculated about what started the fire, saying  the island looked like a bomb went off. He tried to tie the fires to other common subjects about conspiracy theories: smart cities, electric vehicles and artificial intelligence.

"The governor did say this is climate change doing this. Interesting. What they don’t talk about is in January how they had in Maui a smart city conference to turn Maui into an entire smart island, changing everything to electric, renewables, solar panels and pushing everybody into electric vehicles — 15-minute smart cities," he said.

"So, now what’s also interesting is next month in September, Hawaii is hosting the digital government summit, utilizing AI to govern the island. Hm … It’s almost like they’re resetting something to start rebuilding for this."

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

PolitiFact recently debunked an Instagram post featuring a video by the same speaker, who used a 2018 fire photo to falsely claim the Hawaii fires were started by the government using a direct energy weapon.

This video uses several real or planned events to baselessly suggest the Hawaii fires were purposely set so the government can remake the island. We found other social media posts making similar claims about the fires and smart cities.

Officials have not yet determined the Hawaii fires’ cause, but officials have said extremely dry conditions and strong winds hastened their spread. The power company Hawaiian Electric is facing two lawsuits alleging that its downed power lines started the blaze, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported

Officials have not suggested that foul play is involved in the fires.

First, what are 15-minute smart cities?

The video referred to"15-minute smart cities," but those are two distinct urban planning concepts.

There is no universal definition of a smart city, but the concept generally refers to cities that use technology to collect information to help cities run more efficiently, such as improving traffic flow, tracking gunshots to help fight crime or tracking air quality.

The 15-minute city is a separate urban planning concept that proposes that cities should be designed so that residents’ basic needs can be met within a short walk or bike ride from their homes. Some proponents use the same concept but refer to it as a 20-minute city.

Both concepts have been the target of conspiracy theories that falsely allege they are government plots to control citizens by limiting their travel or tracking their movements or habits.

A smart city conference?

No, there wasn’t a "smart city conference" in Maui, though the concept was among many topics discussed at a conference there in January. 

The post shares a screenshot of a 2022 call for papers for the 2023 Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. The conference has been held annually in the state since 1968. Scholars from more than 60 countries meet there to exchange ideas on a wide variety of topics in information technology management

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The conference featured sessions — described as "tracks" and "minitracks" — on various technology subjects, including smart cities.

Tung Bui, the chair of the Information Technology Management Department at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and the chair of the annual conference, told PolitiFact there was nothing unusual about the discussion and he rebuked the notion that this somehow laid the groundwork for a master plan to destroy Maui.

"The concept of smart cities has been a subject of inquiry for at least three decades, coinciding with the emergence of government utilization of databases and other technological tools to augment public services encompassing transportation, public health, and more," Bui said.

Bui said of the more than 2,000 researchers who present work at the annual conference, there are a core that work on e-government, and a few on smart cities. At the January conference, "we did not have any specific discussion to turn Maui into a smart city."

"The idea of resorting to destructive measures, causing harm to a historic landmark and resulting in numerous fatalities, all in an attempt to transform Maui into a smart island, stretches the boundaries of my imagination," said Bui.

The screenshot featured in the video shows a call for papers for a digital government track, which included a minitrack titled "Smart and Connected Cities and Communities." 

Smart cities were one of eight minitracks in the research area of digital government. Other larger topics of focus at the conference included "information technology in health care" and "internet and the digital economy."

There were four papers and an introduction about smart cities published in connection with the event, but none were about turning Maui into a smart island. 

The Instagram video also misleadingly used a screenshot from a 2017 report showing two graphics from a case study about JUMPSmartMaui, a collaboration among Japan, Hawaii and Maui that tried to show how smart grid technology, renewable energy and electric vehicles could work together in Maui’s electrical grid. A smart grid is an electricity network that uses technologies to manage supply and demand.

The graphics and project have no connection to the January Maui conference.

What about AI governing Hawaii? 

The video shows a screenshot of a webpage for a Digital Government Summit scheduled for Sept. 25 in Honolulu and said there’s a plan for artificial intelligence to govern the state.

Although the event is in Hawaii, it’s not specific to the state. The summit’s website says its goal is to bring "together technology focused public-sector professionals with leading industry partners to connect on innovative approaches, get inspired and discover new technologies." 

There are numerous speakers scheduled, but the only mention of AI on the agenda came in a description of a featured talk called "Digital Transformation for Government: The Future is Now."

"The world of government technology is shifting by the day," the description read. "The need for Dynamic Digital Transformation and unlocking the power of emerging technologies like AI and (the Internet of Things) is the future." 

Although it suggests governments can use AI to "improve outcomes for your constituents," it does not say it should be used to govern, nor does it mention Hawaii or Maui.

Our ruling

An Instagram video claimed the fires in Hawaii may have been intentionally set to make way to turn Maui into a "smart island." As evidence the video cites a "smart city" conference in January.

Smart cities is a concept that suggests using technology to enhance government services, and residents’ lives. It wouldn’t require the destruction of a city to enact. The concept of smart cities was among many topics researchers broached at a January conference in Maui, but the research was not specific to Maui.

Although an official cause of the fire has yet to be determined, officials have not said foul play is suspected. We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, Aug. 11, 2023 (live, archived)

Tung Bui, chair of the Information Technology Management Department at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and the chair of the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, email interview, Aug. 14, 2023

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Attorneys aim to make Hawaiian Electric pay for Maui disaster, Aug. 14, 2023

Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, call for papers, April 29, 2022

The Maui News, JUMPSmartMaui project comes to ‘successful’ end, May 11, 2017

New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, Japan - U.S. Collaborative Smart Grid Demonstration Project in Maui Island of Hawaii State:A case study, 2017

Ev O’hana, Our story, accessed Aug. 14, 2023

Tech Brew, How a smart city platform created for Pittsburgh became a nationwide business, May 20, 2022

The Wall Street Journal, ‘Smart City’ Chattanooga Names a New CIO, Jan. 14, 2022

Express VPN, What is a smart city?, Dec. 9, 2022

Carlos Moreno, TedTalk, The 15-minute city, October 2020

The New York Times, The 15-Minute City: Where Urban Planning Meets Conspiracy Theories, March 1, 2023

American Planning Association, Meet the 15-Minute City’s Cousin: The 20-Minute Suburb, Jan. 6, 2023

Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, accessed Aug. 14, 2023

Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Digital government tracks, accessed Aug. 14, 2023

Scholar Space, Smart and Connected Cities and Communities, accessed Aug. 14, 2023 

International Energy Agency, Smart grids, accessed Aug. 14, 2023

Hawaii Digital Government Summit, (live event page, archived Aug. 14, 2023) 

PolitiFact, Claim twists U.N. resolution, smart city concept and the Ohio train derailment into baseless plot, Feb. 24, 2023

PolitiFact, Photo used to claim ‘direct energy assault’ started Hawaii wildfires has circulated since 2018, Aug. 11, 2023

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More by Jeff Cercone

No, Hawaii fires weren’t set intentionally to turn Maui into a ‘smart island’

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