Building a Smart City Upon a Hill


In my Los Angeles neighborhood there is a gnarly 5-way stop. It’s all stop signs, and because of the number of accidents, the city is considering switching to traffic lights. I receive letters from the street department giving me updates and inviting me to comment. There have been multiple neighborhood meetings. Officials have gone a decade back into the accident records and sent surveyors to the intersection a dozen times. I could go on… but perhaps you’re already wondering, “Where’s the “smart city” part of the story?” The thing is, all of that is smart. This is how you change places where people live: you go and ask them. You observe them. You experiment. You make changes and work towards a solution.

More tech-oriented examples of smart cities exist, of course. Barcelona has developed a permanent citizen education and training program for advanced technologies as a way to make the general public more familiar with the possibilities. They also created unique engagement platforms like Decidim.Barcelona that allows for new ways of participatory democracy. In Zaragoza, another Spanish city, over half of the adult population uses a smart citizen card—an all-in-one digital key to municipal services, including public transport, parking, public libraries, swimming pools, and Wi-Fi.

These are wildly different products that take a similar approach to urban innovation. Because how you build is just as important as what you build. Technology has speed embedded in its DNA, with move fast and break things tattooed on its arm. Most of today’s big tech companies are younger than your kids. Meanwhile, there are many cities that have been inhabited for thousands of years. My advice to smart city planners: Take some time removed from deadlines and funding pressures to imagine what your city could be. Make a thoughtful plan that engages the citizens, community groups, and neighborhood associations. Talk with them about what would improve their lives in the city: education, recreation, employment opportunities, rapid response from government services?

The worst way to begin is by ordering a la carte services off a smart city menu that Cisco or IBM has railroaded through other cities. It’s a mistake to start with the … Next Page »

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Mark is the general manager at Treeline, a US-based technology development and advisory firm. He has co-founded five venture-backed companies, with three successful exits. Follow @

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