Smart Cities, Like It or Not, Will Require Technology in the Future

Stephen DeAngelis

February 12, 2014

Back in 2008, University of Newcastle professor Robert G. Hollands, noted that the term “smart cities” suffers from “definitional impreciseness, numerous unspoken assumptions and a rather self-congratulatory tendency.” After all, he writes, “Which city, by definition, does not want to be smart, creative and cultural?” [“Will the real smart city please stand up?, City, December 2008] Clearly, Hollands has a point. Long before the dawn of the information age some cities were doing smart things (like, establishing water and sanitation systems, creating green spaces, and promoting cultural events). Shirley Siluk asserts that the technology-based definition of smart cities is being promoted primarily by “companies that market these kinds of technologies and services to cities.” [“What is a Smart City?Greenbang, 8 November 2013] There is some truth to that assertion as well, because there is money to made. “According to a … report from Navigant Research, revenue from smart city technologies will surpass $20 billion in 2020, with a cumulative total of $117.3 billion from 2013 to 2020.” [“Smart City Technologies Will Generate More Than $117 Billion in Revenue between 2013 and 2020,” DailyFinance, 23 May 2013] Technology companies would be stupid not to pursue a share of that market. To believe, however, that city leaders are being bullied or brainwashed by technology companies into purchasing unnecessary systems is extremely cynical.

Having said that, I agree with Reed Duecy-Gibbs who insists that “becoming smarter is only part of what we should be aiming to achieve. Cities need to change in many ways to accommodate the influx of people during the 21st century.” [“Designing Smart Open Cities,” Code for America, 22 August 2013] Duecy-Gibbs isn’t quite as cynical as Siluk. He writes:

“There’s a revolution occurring in how our urban spaces are conceived, created, and inhabited. This revolution is much less about the physical matter of cities – the parks, roads, and apartments – and much more about how the city and its inhabitants communicate with each other. This shift touches traditional planning, design, and governance fields, among others, and is propelled forward by an explosion of digital technology and data. This movement is gaining steam but its potential is still largely unrealized. It can make cities more equitable and extraordinary.”

However, like the cynics, he warns, “If we are not careful it can also scar our societies with deep divisions.” In other words, transforming an urban environment into a smart city begins with smart people committed to making metropolitan areas more sustainable and livable. Everything else is built upon that philosophical foundation. Siluk reports that “a team of researchers from the US, Canada and Mexico … identified technology as just one of eight factors that are needed to make a city smart.” Those eight factors are: “1) management and organization, 2) technology, 3) governance, 4) policy, 5) people and communities, 6) the economy, 7) built infrastructure and 8) the natural environment.” Eric Woods, research director with Navigant Research., notes that one of the reasons that technology has been emphasized is that it can have a positive effect on an urban economy. He states, “Among city leaders, there is growing awareness that the high-growth industries of the future will be closely linked to the development of information and communication technologies and services, as well as innovative clean technologies.” Technology will also, in one way or another, affect every other factor identified by the team of researchers.

So let’s examine how some analysts believe the implementation of so-called “smart technologies” will help make cities more intelligent. Paul Budde believes that the two most important technologies to implement are “broadband … and smart grids.” [“Smart Communities based on Intelligent Infrastructure,” BuddeBlog, 1 February 2013] But he also believes that implementing such systems, without having the right policies and strategies in place, is a fool’s errand. Without the right policies and strategies in place, siloed pockets of data are likely to emerge as obstacles to overall goals. He insists that proper implementation requires “a holistic approach which includes environmental issues such as self sufficient energy buildings, energy exchanges for renewable energy and e-cars, delivery of e-health, e-education, e-government services as well as digital media and internet services.” Budde has good reason to be concerned. There currently are no standards that make such a holistic approach feasible. Jeremy Fleming notes, “There are doubts … about the extent to which such ‘connected cities’ will truly consist of inter-communicating devices, rather than new but isolated services.” [“Connected cities to cause data explosion, but standards still lacking,” EurActiv, 26 February 2013]

Despite the lack of standards, Tim Ryan reports that some cities are already well on their way to becoming smarter. “Driven by the reduced costs of technology and wider availability of WiFi,” he writes, “urban environments are being upgraded with a pervasive network of cameras and embedded sensors to monitor the safety and well-being of both the city and its residents. Whether tracking the integrity of vital infrastructure, providing a real-time picture traffic conditions or keeping a watchful eye on potential crime this intelligent web of information brings greater awareness to both citizens and officials.” [“How Smart Cities are Leveraging the Real-time Availability of Data,” PSFK, 6 January 2013] As the brouhaha created by Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying has revealed, you can take surveillance too far. Nevertheless, monitoring, such as that used in cities like Boston and London, have helped police forces quickly identify and capture terrorists and other criminals. Safety will always be one the most important things that city leaders can provide for their constituents.

As Budde noted, a smart grid is going to be one of defining features of smart cities. In that area, Stephen Lacey reports, “The focus on vertical technology platforms has given way to the horizontal approach where each device is considered within an open platform to create a true communications ecosystem, expanding applications far beyond the electric grid and into the real world.” [“Smart Grid, Smart City? How Networked Streetlights Will Make Cities Smarter,” The Energy Collective, 29 April 2013] Like many other analysts, Lacey believes the Internet of Things (IoT) “is now a driving force behind how technology providers and networking companies see the world.” As I’ve noted in past posts on the IoT, it will primarily be a machine-to-machine network that connects up to 50 billion devices. Jeremy Towler agrees that, in the future, the concept of smart buildings will go “well beyond the realm of energy efficiency and energy management important though these are.” [“‘Point of no return’ for smart buildings,” BSRIA, 21 June 2013] Towler believes that the concept of smart buildings “is also about operational efficiency, occupant satisfaction and productivity.”

At the beginning of this post, I noted that Shirley Siluk fears that the holistic concept of smart cities is going to be hijacked by large technology companies. Duecy-Gibbs believes this is more perception than reality. He writes, “Smart city initiatives have often been associated with large-scale centralized technologies provided by private industry for a government’s benefit. … However, this is only a fraction of the ways in which cities are utilizing technology and data to become more nimble, precise, and effective.” Siluk is probably correct, however, that the large projects are the ones that will capture the most attention. And, according to Constructech magazine, there are going to be plenty of big projects. “More cities than ever are interested in becoming ‘smart’.” the magazine writes. “They are using new technologies to enable intelligent systems that can promote sustainability and a higher quality of life. These intelligent systems can also benefit a city’s infrastructure, resulting in monitored bridges, roads, and other projects.” [“Smart Cities Use Technology,” 7 January 2014]

The Smart Cities Council website states, “With staggering population growth on the rise, it is essential that our cities allow future generations to not only sustain but thrive. We envision a world where digital technology and intelligent design are harnessed to create smart, sustainable cities with high-quality jobs and high-quality living.” That’s an admirable goal, one that is much more achievable for so-called greenfield cities (i.e., new cities) than for brownfield cities (i.e., established cities). Seldom do you read anything about how brownfield cities are going to be able to deal with the ghettos that rise spontaneously on the outskirts of some megacities. There is no planning, no infrastructure, and few, if any, services provided to these areas. Cities won’t be truly smart until they figure out how to include the slums in smart city initiatives. The good news is that even in such areas, cellphone penetration has been significant. This means that residents of these areas are no longer completely off the grid.

For an interesting take on how one man thinks that greenfield cities of the future should be designed, watch the following video.