Your Smart City Is Stupid


Cities have been called a repository of possibilities. What they haven’t been called, at least until recently, is smart.

These days, however, the term “smart city” is everywhere, pimped by tech giants like IBM, Google, and Cisco, and embraced by various mayors, city managers, and chief innovation officers from Silicon Valley to Rio to Dubai. So-called smart city projects already claim to “potentially” preserve water in California, “possibly” make waste disposal more efficient in Sweden, and “may” make it easier to find parking in Amsterdam. All would be a pathway to progress worth a big thumbs up, except this has all become techno-bureaucratic babble by people who think technology in itself is the answer to the world’s problems. If you believe a hundred parking meters with Wi-Fi access is going to make your city smarter, you’ve been listening to too many TED talks.

The way elected officials and technologists talk about the smart city, one would think the concept comes from a brilliant urban planner. Nope. The concept comes from sales people at global tech companies—along with a lot of expensive ads and tons of political donations. It’s all geared to persuade local officials that the way to create a safer, happier, and more inclusive city comes through wave after wave of innovation. Really expensive innovation. So we now have an app for paying subway fares here. Connected trams there. Camera-enabled traffic lights everywhere. Glossy brochures proclaim one victory of local innovation after another.

Making a city “smarter” is not a bad idea, per se. There is enormous potential to improve our health, safety, and transportation through the use of data, computing, and the internet. But we need to get away from this paradigm that individual improvements driven by technology are a panacea. Otherwise, smart cities will end up being a catastrophe.

Whatever a city may be, it probably shouldn’t be a private hunting preserve for tech companies looking to hit their quarterly sales targets. Nor is it a place for startup entrepreneurs to indiscriminately disrupt the pillars of civilization because they have VC-backing, great PR, and a well-funded lobbying team.

If you want to know what happens when a government gives technocratic fantasies free reign, look at Masdar in the United Arab Emirates. Masdar was touted in 2006 as the largest smart city project in history, replete with self-driving shuttles, high-efficiency elevators, and solar panels for 50,000 people. But 10 years and $22 billion later, the population of Masdar is 300 students at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Futuristic buildings remain empty, the shuttle system was never completed, and the best entertainment is watching a sandstorm roll through the empty streets.

So, how can we employ technology to make our cities better places to live?

We should start with some questions. What’s the plan? Is it adaptable? And who owns the data?

Mikko Annala from Demos Helsinki, a Nordic think tank, says the most fundamental and the most disregarded principle of urban planning requires systematic engagement of the people who are expected to live there. How many people who are seeking parking spots actually carry smartphones? How many of them use Android and how many are … 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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