Sunday, July 27th, 2014
One of the more highly touted concepts in the urbanism world is the idea of “smart cities.” Wikipedia says of the smart city: “A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action and engagement.” The basic idea is “better urban living through technology”.
That smart cities has captured a huge amount of media and mindshare is unsurprising, given our technophilic society and the sums of money being spent by major corporations to promote it. But the smart city has proven to be elusive in practice and slow to materialize. What is it a city is actually supposed to do to become smart? And why haven’t we seen more of it?
As I said, smart city tech vendors have been making a major marketing push and so they are a fixture sponsors of conferences. Last month at New Cities, I saw several tech firms present their ideas on the topic, and it helped me understand more about why smart cities has proven elusive.
It’s already been observed that the citizen perspective is all too often missing in the smart city discussion. But listening to the providers in the space, it became clearer why. Namely because all of them are B2B companies who sell to the corporate C-suite and its public sector equivalent. They do not have a consumer heritage and thus they don’t have a lot of experience or heritage in end user applications, hence by default don’t see the city from the citizen perspective.
Think about a company like Cisco. Cisco sells most of the gear that makes the internet run. The people who buy their stuff expect it to work, all the time. They have to have carrier grade five 9’s reliability. These systems have to have the so-called traits of reliability, availability, and serviceability. They also have to be efficient and predictable in their operations. The idea is sort of like the Maytag repairman mentality. It just has to work.
This produces an operating model that would be, from the standpoint of a person, stifling or even dehumanizing. So it shouldn’t be any surprise the public and politicians by and large haven’t jumped in with both feet.
I want to stress that there’s actually huge value potential in this B2B, carrier grade type model. Not just Cisco’s business customers but all of us absolutely expect our phone to work and our internet to be up. All. The. Time. Comedians like Louis CK have skits mocking our entitled, unrealistic expectations about our technology (“I hate Verzion!”) The minute our home internet goes down, what do we do? Pick up our phones and start Tweeting about how much we hate AT&T/Comcast/Cox/etc. One reason we are so annoyed by them is that outages are so rare. Thank folks like Cisco for that.
Similarly, a Bombardier rep was talking at New Cities about his firm’s desire to sell managed services, not just trains, into the public transit market. If they were able to make trains run as reliably as phones work, there would be huge public benefit there.
So I don’t want to downplay the importance of that kind of stuff. In everything from water to 911 emergency dispatch, we need a whole lot of stuff in our cities to just work and work reliably. This necessitates the type of approach to gear and its implementation and management that comes from the B2B, sell to the CIO or operations manager mentality. It’s mission critical to public safety and quality of life.
On the other hand, that’s not the only type of application there is. Unfortunately, the smart city dialog has been dominated by it, with the exception of the open data movement, which I don’t generally see labeled as falling under the smart cities domain.
One thing I might suggest that these major vendors explore in trying to better capture the public imagination and drive uptake is to create a connection to the citizen by getting into some consumer businesses. Now this would be problematic strategically I know. Investors would probably hate it. But at least something small scale might be interesting. There’s probably a lot that could be learned.
Google is a B2B and B2C company, but one predominantly focused on software. They’ve been diversifying into hardware however, both by creating their own products like Google Glasses, and buying smart thermostat maker Nest. The latter I find particularly intriguing as these are in a sense a type of smart city application, but focused on the person in the city instead of back end infrastructure. Google is trying to learn the hardware space to be sure they don’t end up outflanked in the “internet of things.” (They are also getting into the infrastructure business as well though things like Google Fiber).
Potentially something like buying a Nest type vendor could be something these major smart city companies could do to put their toes in the water of the consumer space. Obviously any deal has to make sense from an investor perspective, but the idea here is that this is almost an R&D operation to create a pipeline of knowledge about the citizens of the city and what they value and how they live and create their lives. That then informs the smart city vision beyond efficiency and RAS, notably the “participatory action and engagement,” which is something you definitely don’t want on your router configuration.
This raises an interesting competitive question: will the majority of the profits in say the application of smart city ideas to energy efficiency go to someone like the smart meter vendor or to someone like Google/Nest? If I were the vendors in the space conventionally labeled smart cities, I’d be working hard to make sure the answer to that question was “me”. In the meantime, building relationships to citizens/consumers can help to shape the smart city idea into something with more marketplace uptake and public resonance.
For further perspectives on smart cities, see my previous post with my thoughts after I moderated a technology panel at Barcelona’s Smart City World Expo in 2012. Also, Adam Greenfield took a very negative view of the idea in his eBook that gives a different perspective on the issue.