How cities lost control of the urban revolution (or three generations of smart cities) Urban Planning

I was a columnist in the Governing magazine print for about five years. Unfortunately, the publication was closed last year. However, the company it owns has revised governing as a purely online publication that focuses on the interface between technology and public policy.

I am happy to be able to contribute to this new platform. My The first column is online and it’s about how cities have lost control of the urban tech movement. I track down three generations of “smart cities” and, like the government in the driver seat in the first two generations, the private sector largely bypassed it in the third generation. Here is an excerpt:

For many years we have been promised that the connection between technology and the city, the “intelligent city”, would revolutionize urban life. But for a long time, the term was essentially a buzzword that had been linked to different concepts over three generations, accompanied by generous standards of hype and more recently some serious questions about who is sitting in the driver’s seat.

Large technology vendors looking to sell enterprise-level solutions for managing water and sanitation systems or automating transit operations supported the first big wave of smart cities. Companies like Cisco, Schneider Electric, IBM and Bombardier have sponsored conferences and promoted their solutions. And they delivered some impressive showpieces, such as the IBM command center built for Rio de Janeiro, which was presented in a TED lecture by the then mayor Eduardo Paes. Songdo in South Korea was a completely new business district in the city based on this kind of technological vision.

This generation of smart cities is the product of companies that have long focused on the needs of their customers. As a result, their solutions have been about empowering their government customers. The Rio command center, for example, allowed the city to better manage its operations. However, it turned out that there weren’t that many cities willing or able to buy such a very expensive solution. This generation of smart cities continues: the new tariff system that is being installed by the New York region transit network is one example. But it didn’t revolutionize city life.

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