This was written in response to a live debate hosted by the Economist on Smart Cities. Two debaters at the opposite site of the spectrum–one making a living of his argument how big IT companies aren’t doing our Cities any favors; and one with strong IBM roots that believes in the emergence of IT for the betterment of our future communities.
“Are Smart Cities empty Hype” is debated on Economist Debates until December 13th, 2013.
I’ve been following the “Smart City” movement for quite some time now, and often it seems we’re trying to turn this into a black and white debate. Either one believes that some evil technology companies try to destroy our Cityscape as they forge technology into our every day life for only their own economic benefit. Or, there are those that believe that we can only define a “smart city” through the lens if IT and and technical innovation. Rather, I would argue that both sides are right and both sides are wrong. [Disclaimer: I do work for one of Worlds largest technologies companies that is very committed to the Smart City movement].
At a real estate event once I asked a number of developers what a “smart building” means to them. The answer I got was: “a building that is fully leased”. In turn, a “smart city” (or intelligent community or innovation society) may well be a city that prospers; thrives; grows; provides equal opportunities for all its constituents; is competitive; attracts businesss and citizens; combines leisure, arts, culture, as well economic opportunities; is green and sustainable; provides health, safety, and security for all; and allows us all to be productive, constructive, and happy participants in the community, economy, and Nation.
There are many factors that all need to work in tandem to provide such environment. Design, planning, culture and the arts, politics, private sector, engagement…and technology: it’s “and”, and not “or”.
There is no question that technology will play an increasingly important role in the shaping of our communities–and even if some try to deny it, the evidence is happening all around us. The “Internet of Everything” is real, and the Internet and IT has proven to be a powerful enabler that has propelled us in the digital revolution. Connectivity, access, collaboration are the foundation of the new economy (like roads were 1,000’s of years ago, and the railway was a 100 years ago).
Planners, policy makers, business, infrastructure companies, and the tech sector (and everyone else) needs to play in the same sandbox, and only together (not ‘just’ politicians, not ‘just’ business, and not ‘just’ big IT…but together) we can define and realize the new potential of our communities and economies.
Smart Cities are only a hype (and indeed will live up to it) if the agenda is driven by just one set of stakeholder; and the balance of collaboration and co-creation is lost.
Consequently, I’d argue that the fact that Songdo may –in the eyes of urban visionaries and critics– not have lived up to its potential is not a cause of big IT and technology-evil-doers. It weren’t the tech firms that designed the community. There were planners, designers, government, developers, and the tech industry all coming together to try to define a new future. Maybe one likes it, maybe one doesn’t: but they tried and they did it. They didn’t question, complain, debate, and thus fell back to tested and proven ways. As a Nation (and World) we can only get ahead if we innovate, partner, and get going with it (even when some may perceive it isn’t perfect).
I applaud every Mayor, planner, engineer, builder, politician, …and technology company that is trying to bring new ideas and capabilities to the table that will ultimately help create networks of sustainable communities that can handle the population growth, economic shifts and political hardships, and create new opportunities for everyone. “Smart Cities” is not an end-state, and the journey has only just began. Rather than focusing on all that is wrong, maybe we focus on all that is good–learn from it–and evolve.