Let’s Be Smart about Intelligent Cities

The reign of “smart growth” is over; “intelligent cities” is the new urbanism buzzword. Technology holds great promise for cities, but we must pair it with social innovation and financial investment.

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Last week, USA Today declared that “smart growth” is an outdated term, even as its principles remain accepted and practiced. “Intelligent cities” is the new urbanism buzzword.

“Intelligent cities,” the new darling lingo of planners, reflects the times. It captures the essence of 21st-century technology that can help track when and how many people cross a street, water and energy consumption and peak hours at every transit stop. It also will soon allow bidding on a parking space via cellphone (the space goes to the highest bidder).

At Next American City, we have long studied and celebrated the reality of intelligent cities and advocated for better urban informatics, open data and cooperation between the government and the technology sectors. For the past two years, we have united new media and urban policy’s top thinkers and practitioners at Open Cities, a conference we host with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, where we discuss new media strategies for building an engaged citizenry, using municipal data and developing cost-saving technologies for cities. It’s thrilling to think that with the help of technology — a good deal of it already developed and implementable now — we can find ways to alleviate energy consumption, traffic congestion and other systemic urban problems.

I am not too concerned that cities won’t be able to afford technological interventions, a concern voiced by a source in USA Today. In fact, an abundance of freeware and open-source technology is already available, and cities can apply it almost immediately. Groups such as Code for America are bridging the bureaucratic barriers and culture clashes that often prevent the government and tech sectors from collaborating. And this month in Egypt and elsewhere, social media has demonstrated its immense, world-changing power to propel civic engagement and political impact.

I do worry, however, that government and planners might become too reliant on technology as a tool to inform decisions about a city’s future. Relying on citizen input shared through smartphones and even a plain old Internet connection is to implicitly ignore the input of entire neighborhoods without broadband infrastructure. Technology is a wonderful means through which to call attention to a pothole, but will it lead to meaningful investments in infrastructure? Being able to use your smartphone to see whether your bus is late is great — for people with smartphones, who, for the record, aren’t usually the people riding buses.

We challenge cities (and the major companies providing tools to them, including IBM, Cisco and Siemens) to resist the temptation to think small about technology, creating a closed feedback loop in which only tech-savvy residents and financial bottom lines are served. And even if technology helps sharpen our understanding of the most urgent urban problems – dire education rates, blight and high unemployment among them – how can it then find solutions and empower the citizens it identifies as in need? Cash investment and social innovation must be paired with this exciting leap forward in urban technology.

The forthcoming issue of Next American City will present reports, essays and interviews featuring the people that are building intelligent cities around the world. It contains a number of examples of “smart” innovations that will change cities as we know them, enhancing life not only for the well-served for the underserved. I’m looking forward in particular to publishing an essay by Courtney E. Martin, who writes and speaks often about the “benign neglect” technology can enable as it empowers the empowered.

The USA Today piece called welcome attention to an important point in the evolution in urbanist thinking. Data gathered from “connected” citizens, especially that which reveals truths about things such as transit efficiency, energy use and disaster preparedness, will benefit everyone. But to become too dependent on technology to facilitate civic engagement and plan urban change would be a mistake. One of the smart growth era’s finest attributes was that it called for a slowing down of the planning process, advocating for long-term engagement with all citizens. Tech tools can enhance this engagement, but they can also make it easier to hurdle past. Let’s hope that this smartest attribute of the smart-growth movement survives as we plan our intelligent cities of the future.

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Tags: governance

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