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July 18, 2019

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In Defense of Smart Cities – An ‘Old Idea’ Made New  

Company  |  Product  |  Smart Cities

The New York Times recently published an article by Dr.Shohsanna Saxe, assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, in which she raised some insightful questions about the potential for smart cities to improve municipal operations and civilian life.

How will the technology and associated skilled workforce be funded? What new operational complexities will be created? What additional and costly maintenance will be required? How reliant should we be on technology that might be prone to failure? How will private enterprise and civic authorities interact?

It was a thought-provoking column and concluded on a point that brooks no dissent – namely that the very best things about cities (Dr. Saxe cited parks and public spaces, communities and education opportunities) are created by people and not by technology.

Amen to that. These are the things that enable us to have the best possible experiences in cities — and experience is what life is all about.

Nor can I argue with her suggestion that we should have the strength of mind to use the best of what she called “old ideas,” or established, proven ways of doing things to maximize the benefit to the population.

Dr. Saxe declared herself a smart-city skeptic, but I am of a totally different viewpoint:  Smart cities are the future of metropolitan life for the simple reason that they are going to make a lot of things better.

Cities rushing to proclaim themselves smart are like “overachieving students,” Dr. Saxe said, adding that the fundamental promises of smart cities are limited to “lots of data, and automated decision making on that data.”

I think the vision is much greater than that. (I also think overachieving students are a good thing!)

Think about one of the greatest “old ideas” and one of the most enduring facilities of any great city – the public library.

Libraries are wonderful because they take vast amounts of data and make it available in a central location to any resident who might wish to access and exploit that data.

This, I believe, is what smart cities are going to become; huge central repositories for a wealth of rich and varied data which, crucially, will be made available to anyone who wants to see what they can do with it.

Thus it’s not about data and analytics, it’s about empowering citizens and local organizations to innovate and improve their surroundings.

Sure, not every idea will be good, successful, or even desirable. After all, 100 people could read the same book and all come away with different inspirations. But the point remains that democratizing access to smart-city data creates the best chance of successful outcomes and previously unimagined benefits.

The SynchroniCity project in Europe is a great example of such a plan. It involves the creation of a data marketplace that allows different stakeholders to trade their data and/or make it available for free depending on who wants to access it. Those overachieving students may get data at no cost, for example, helping to educate the new tech-literate workforce the smart city will require.

The city authority itself will own a great deal of smart-city data, creating a huge monetization opportunity that may go a long way in answering Dr. Saxe’s concerns about how ongoing technology deployment could be funded.

I believe numerous organizations would be keen to pay for access to that data to develop new services which, to another of Dr. Saxe’s points, have not even been thought of yet.

She is quite right, too, that we will still need physical infrastructure designed to succeed. Bridges that need to last a century, to use her example. Still, to ensure that a bridge lasts a century wouldn’t be helpful to employ smart-city solutions to intelligently monitor shifts in the loads it bears?

And yes, we need more effective public transportation. But wouldn’t it be great if citizens were alerted in real time to capacity fluctuations on that public transport, and operators could use dynamic pricing to encourage and manage passenger journeys?

Ultimately, only technology that enables useful, improved, or desirable experiences meets with mass adoption. Smart-city projects will likely see many more failed ideas than successful ones. Still, the successful ideas will have a far-reaching impact.

We can’t know what they will be, and that is perhaps the most exciting thing about the entire smart-city concept.

Getting smarter is the story of the species. It’s the oldest idea out there.