Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger in the Wall Street Journal: “A couple of weeks ago I participated in an online debate sponsored by The Economist around the question: Are Smart Cities Empty Hype? Defending the motion was Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future and adjunct faculty member at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. I took the opposite side, arguing the case against the motion.
The debate consisted of three phases spread out over roughly 10 days. We each first stated our respective positions in our opening statements, followed a few days later by our rebuttals, and then finally our closing statements.  It was moderated by Ludwig Siegele, online business and finance editor at The Economist. Throughout the process, people were invited to vote on the motion, as well as to post their own comments.
The debate was inspired, I believe, by The Multiplexed Metropolis, an article Mr. Siegele published in the September 7 issue of The Economist which explored the impact of Big Data on cities. He wrote that the vast amounts of data generated by the many social interactions taking place in cities might lead to a kind of second electrification, transforming 21st century cities much as electricity did in the past. “Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one,” he noted. “They are a long way from proving their case.”
In my opening statement, I said that I strongly believe that digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will make cities smarter and help transform them over time. My position is not surprising, given my affiliations with NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) and Imperial College’s Digital City Exchange, as well as my past involvements with IBM’s Smarter Cities and with Citigroup’s Citi for Cities initiatives. But, I totally understand why so many– almost half of those voting and quite a few who left comments–feel that smart cities are mostly hype. The case for smart cities is indeed far from proven.
Cities are the most complex social organisms created by humans. Just about every aspect of human endeavor is part of the mix of cities, and they all interact with each other leading to a highly dynamic system of systems. Moreover, each city has its own unique style and character. As is generally the case with transformative changes to highly complex systems, the evolution toward smart cities will likely take quite a bit longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be more transformative than we can currently envision.
Electrification, for example, started in the U.S., Britain and other advanced nations around the 1880s and took decades to deploy and truly transform cities. The hype around smart cities that I worry the most about is underestimating their complexity and the amount of research, experimentation, and plain hard work that it will take to realize the promise. Smart cities projects are still in their very early stages. Some will work and some will fail. We have much to learn. Highly complex systems need time to evolve.
Commenting on the opening statements, Mr. Siegele noted: “Despite the motion being Are smart cities empty hype?, both sides have focused on whether these should be implemented top-down or bottom-up. Most will probably agree that digital technology can make cities smarter–meaning more liveable, more efficient, more sustainable and perhaps even more democratic.  But the big question is how to get there and how smart cities will be governed.”…