Sorry Smart Cities – You Completely Missed the Point

Maybe it’s just me, but I keep thinking I hear the sound of “Smart City fatigue” setting in.

Since IBM coined the term and Cisco quickly followed its lead, there have been, according to the web, three generations of smart cities. There have been academic papers and workshops and massive conferences. Multinational, national and local programs have poured billions into projects. Technologies have been developed to improve how cities manage everything from energy, water, public safety and pollution to transportation, healthcare and tax collection. Consultants have prospered, IT systems sales have grown and CIOs have earned new respect. Now, after more than two decades of smart cities adoption, what do we have to show for all that investment?

Frankly, not much.

It’s Not the Technology

Not that there’s anything wrong with the technology. It’s like automating a factory. Install the sensors, cameras, computers and network connections across the municipality. Integrate them all with software, big data and artificial intelligence. Better data leads to better decisions, and automation lets you do more with less labor. It’s a win for the city, its residents and taxpayers.

It’s also not very damned important.

We get a 5% increase in efficiency, a 10% reduction in costs, a 30% drop in time wasted looking for a parking spot. Wow. We do also sometimes save lives thanks to more efficient policing, firefighting and emergency response. But, according to a 2017 analysis by Statista, only 11% of smart city spending worldwide goes toward public safety.

So, aside from saving those lives, what difference have smart cities made to their citizens? Are they enjoying more freedom, more opportunity, greater prosperity or stronger connection to the community and its culture because they live in a smart city? Is there greater and fairer access to education? Are the great disparities in household wealth smaller? Have we improved access to housing or attacked the root causes of crime?

That might seem a long and unfair wish list to burden smart cities with. But if we’re going to spend billions, shouldn’t it be on something that matters?

It Starts with Good Jobs

For all of its cool technology, the Smart City movement has completely ignored the single most important contributor to a community’s quality of life: widespread employment that pays well and offers new opportunity to each generation. Employment alone will not make a great place to live, but it is what makes possible everything else.

In the digital age, employment is under siege. Any line of work that pays a living wage demands a good basic education, “hard” skills needed in specific industries, the “soft” skills of the workplace and access to digital technology. To be successful, the companies that employ those workers need continuous innovation, market knowledge, adaptability and access to digital technology. And none of this stand still. The bar continuously rises for people and organizations due to the competitive acceleration brought by digital technology across global markets. Those who fail to keep up are lost to stagnation, decline and impoverishment. We see the results all around us in an economy divided into “haves” and “have-nots” – whether people, communities or entire regions – with all the social, cultural and political destruction it creates. The big challenges of today arise from rapid technology change – but to those challenges the technologists of the smart city have no answer.

Even before COVID19, municipal leaders faced great hurdles in bringing inclusive prosperity, social health and cultural richness to their communities. Yet it can be done, regardless of the community’s size or location. It is being done in hundreds of small, medium and large communities around the world. It is not a matter of luck – but of success in constructing a new economic, social and cultural infrastructure that positions the community to benefit from change rather than be run into the ground by it.

For the same 20 years that the smart city has been nibbling around the edges, ICF has been developing a Method to help communities prepare their economies, societies and cultures to prosper. Technology – particularly fast and affordable broadband – is part of it. But so are revolutionary approaches to education, to innovation, inclusion, engagement and sustainability. Those are the Factors that combine to make an Intelligent Community.

So, are you growing fatigued waiting for the “smart” city to deliver on its golden promises? You might consider trying “intelligent” instead.

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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