What Are Smart Cities?

Jetsons cityI’ve been seeing smart cities mentioned a lot over the last few years and so I spent some time lately reading about them to see what all the fuss is about. I found some of what I expected, but I also found a few surprises.

What I expected to find is that the smart city concept means applying computer systems to automate and improve some of the major systems that operate a city. And that is what I found. The first smart city concept was one of using computers to improve traffic flow, and that is something that is getting better all the time. With sensors in the roads and computerized lights, traffic systems are able to react to the actual traffic and work to clear traffic jams. And I read that this is going to work a lot better in the near future.

But smart city means a lot more. It means constructing interconnected webs of smart buildings that use green technology to save energy or to even generate some of the energy they need. It means surveillance systems to help deter and solve crimes. It means making government more responsive to citizen needs in areas like recycling, trash removal, snow removal, and general interfaces with city systems for permits, taxes, and other needs. And it’s going to soon mean integrating the Internet of Things into a city to perfect the many goals of governments doing a better job.

I also found that this is a worldwide phenomenon and there is some global competition between the US, Europe, China, and India to produce the most efficient smart cities. The conventional wisdom is that smart cities will become the foci of global trade and that smart cities will be the big winners in the battle for global economic dominance.

But I also found a few things I didn’t know. It turns out that the whole smart city concept was dreamed up by companies like IBM, Cisco, and Software AG. The whole phenomenon was not so much a case of cities clamoring for solutions, but rather of these large companies selling a vision of where cities ought to be going. And the cynic in me sees red flags and wonders how much of this phenomenon is an attempt to sell large, overpriced hardware and software systems to cities. After all, governments have always been some of the best clients for large corporations because they will often overpay and have fewer performance demands than commercial customers.

I agree that many of the goals for smart cities sound like great ideas. Anybody who has ever sat at a red light for a long time while no traffic was moving on the cross street has wished that a smart computer could change the light as needed. The savings for a community for more efficient traffic is immense in terms of saved time, more efficient businesses, and less pollution. And most cities could certainly be more efficient when dealing with citizens. It would be nice to be able to put a large piece of trash on the curb and have it whisked away quickly, or to be able to process a needed permit or license online without having to stand in line at a government office.

But at some point a lot of what the smart city vendors are pushing starts to sound like a big brother solution. For example, they are pushing surveillance cameras everywhere tied into software systems smart enough to make sense out of the mountains of captured images. But I suspect that most people who live in a city don’t want their city government spying and remembering everything they do in public any more than we want the NSA to spy on our Internet usage at the federal level.

So perhaps cities can be made too smart. I can’t imagine anybody who minds if cities get more efficient at the things they are supposed to provide for citizens. People want their local government to fix the potholes, deliver drinkable water, provide practical mass transit, keep the traffic moving, and make them feel safe when they walk down the street. When cities go too much past those basic needs they either have crossed the line into being too intrusive in our lives, or they are stepping over the line and competing with things that commercial companies ought to be doing. So I guess we want our cities to be smart, but not too smart.

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