Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Regarding Smart Cities

I was in Barcelona a couple weeks ago for the Smart City Expo and World Congress, where I moderated a session on the impact of smart city technologies on cities. Not only is Barcelona an amazing city itself, it was great to get to see European urbanists we don’t always run across in the US, like Charles Landry and Ricky Burdett. As is often the case, I think we here in America (myself included) end up trapped in a US-centric bubble in our thinking. So it’s good to break out of it.

My session brought out a number of interesting points in thinking about smart city technology. Peter Hirsberg gave the keynote that was frankly what I thought was the best presentation I saw in the conference. Unfortunately I don’t believe it will be online.

One thing he noted was that when we develop new technological solutions, we have a tendency to build highly centralized “command and control” type operations initially. The paradigmatic example of this in smart cities today is IBM’s command center in Rio, which has been frequently highlighted in urbanists circles as pretty cool tech.

Hirshberg in a pretty mind blowing way showed how this was typical of how technology has been deployed, and showed how the Rio center in concept was nearly identical to IBM’s SAGE system for air defense in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, he played IBM’s own promotional videos for the two systems that, despite being separated in time by several decades, were nearly identical in what they said.

He wasn’t necessarily critical of these centralized systems, noting the immense utility they provide. But ultimately technology transcends this to enable more decentralized modes of operations as well. This set up a few tensions that we explored further, including:

  • Centralized vs. decentralized systems
  • Proprietary vs. open technology
  • Technology driven by government (e.g., efficiency) or society as a whole (e.g., environmental) goals versus value delivery or life enhancements for citizens and consumers.

These are definitely items that should be thought about when trying to get a handle around all the things that go into what we think of as “smart cities.” I think a lot of what we conceive of as smart cities today consists in vendor led automation/efficiency solutions. These are important, particularly in an era of fiscal constraints in which business as usual is no longer tenable. These types of systems might actually have significant citizen benefits as well, such as the Rio center or even something like CompStat.

But as Hirshberg also noted, that puts too narrow a lens on it. And it may be that the ultimately the most important smart city company isn’t or won’t be something we think of as smart cities at all today. He highlighted Airbnb, Uber and many others in this regard, and especially noted how some of these firms came to the fore during Hurricane Sandy, with better information about conditions on the ground, and a better way to help people (such as by using Airbnb to find a place to stay) on a completely decentralized basis than through official channels. Some of these private efforts ended up de facto deputized and adopted by the authorities. I believe these sorts of decentralized, private networks will play a key role in urban resiliency in coming years.

My own view falls somewhat in line with this. While the centralized model is important, we will only see an explosion in value to the extent that we are able to create platforms on which the public and entrepreneurs can themselves innovate.

To me it is similar to the evolution of tech to the present internet age. It used to be you needed a mainframe system to be in the computer business. That was expensive and only big companies could do it. Then we had minicomputers, client/server, desktops, etc. These lowered the cost but it still remained a “professional” endeavor. Even during the dotcom era, to start a company you needed to raise millions of dollars to buy Sun servers and Oracle licenses, plus to build out a ton of software architecture to underpin what you wanted to do.

Today, we’ve reached a place where a very new paradigm exists. The emergence of two things – open source development frameworks and the cloud – has created an environment on which even lone developers can innovate. Everyone with a certain basic knowledge of development is now capable of creating and releasing applications, and even starting companies, with next to no money. You can literally do it from your bedroom. Yet, most apps may end up as junk, but so much amazing stuff is being created too. We now have an incredible environment for technical creativity out there.

I think this is where cities should be aiming for: to build “the open source cloud” for smart cities, whereby it isn’t up to only the city or high priced contractors to deliver value, but the marketplace and even citizens will have that ability to innovate on top of the platform such that they’ll generate value we never imagined possible – and at no cost to the public. And it will generate amazing positive side effects like improved urban resiliency.

I won’t pretend to know what this will look like, just as I couldn’t have predicted our current environment even five years ago. But to me the future is in marketplace and citizen innovation, with vendors and cities providing a big part of the critical platform infrastructure to enable it.

Topics: Technology

2 Responses to “Regarding Smart Cities”

  1. Rod Stevens says:

    Sounds like an interesting conference. Richard Landry is an important thinker.

    The question for me is less about technology, the solutions, than what problems truly deserve solving. I’m coming around to the point of view that it is solving the truly mundane problems that bring the most benefit and therefore change our systems the most. Problems like waiting out in the rain because you don’t know your bus is coming, trying to find a decent alternative to McDonald’s when you are in a hurry to eat in a new place, finding your keys, or for that matter, needing keys in the first place. There are a host of solutions for different things out there, representing solutions to are different people’s individual problems, but these only become solutions in a big way when they solve problems that are problems for everyone.

    Urban life is a lot less filled with hassles than it used to be. Less crime, less dog filth on the sidewalk, fewer overflowing trash cans. The question for the smart cities people is what problems are really widespread and will make a lot of people’s lives materially better if solved.

  2. Robert Munson says:

    You make a key point about centralizing the new technology first, but that innovations only emerge when the decision-making is decentralized. This was found in several B-School studies of the PC buying-spree in the early 1980s that made many hardware manufacturers rich, but made barely an improvement in corporate productivity. That only emerged in the late 1980s when there was a revolution to decentralize corporate decision-making and breed entrepreneurship. Change comes from the people who know better and have incentive.

    I was reminded of this truth in mid-October in the “Re-inventing Chicago” conference sponsored by the Center for Neighborhood Technology when the City’s Chief Technology Officer talked about a number of innovations the City had bred. While there is a wiz-bang cover, underneath there has been a real technical and political leap from the previous administration’s reputation for covert operations.

    The CNT conference’s boots-on-the-ground started that evening with a Hackathon producing several apps that looked to me to promise cost-effective solutions in transportation, housing and community life. For presentations on these apps, link to http://www.cnt.org/news/2012/10/22/7050/

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