Smart cities: can technology usher prosperity and equity?

June 10, 2010

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(Flickr/IBMphoto24)
The chairman and CEO of IBM addresses 900 leaders at the Smarter Cities forum in Shanghai, China.

Barry Weisberg, our global cities contributor is in Shanghai, China for the 2010 World Expo, which runs through October. He reports for us as part of our continuing series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.”

As mega cities expand, Barry hopes that governments and citizens will push for a future of intelligent, humane urban planning.


We have been living with dumb cities for decades. There is no better example than in the United States. In 2007, road traffic congestion squandered 2.8 billion gallons of petroleum and 4.2 billion hours of time. This cost the US $87.2 billion annually and is a result of the oil and automobile industries preventing the development of mass transit systems, while smart technology is largely reserved for military uses.

What is a smart city? And smart according to whom? Well, IBM believes they have some answers. They want a “smart planet.” This means that we are interconnected, becoming instrumented with data, and becoming more intelligent about the use of the two. Their focus, presented persuasively by IBM Chairman Samuel J. Palmisano at the Shanghai Smart Cities Forum recently, focuses on smarter transportation, energy and utilities, health care, public safety, water, government services and education. For example, everyone hates to fill out paper forms. But smart (digital) records would save 25% of administrative costs, or up to 1.5% of annual Gross Domestic Product.

Another powerful example is water. Cities normally lose 50% of the water supply because of a leaky infrastructure. This could be prevented by smart water management systems. The possibilities for increased efficiency and cost savings are evident. But more important than smart growth is equitable growth.

If such innovations become universal, the drive toward smart cities may be one of the most important developments in human culture, comparable in importance to the industrial revolution. This is imperative for China, with 15 million annually and 300 million people in twenty years moving into cities. It is hard to imagine a functional or equitable city of twenty or thirty million people without a dramatic improvement in smart services. But the danger also exists for a dystopia.

First, the drive for smart cities arose as a reaction to urban sprawl, congestion and a call for high-density urban living. This triggered the explosion of vertical urban growth. But who should decide density levels of urbanization? Can we leave that to the market?

Second, as George Orwell explained in his famous book 1984, it is the potential for the enormous concentration of power in the hands of those that provide and manage smart services. However, Orwell never imagined the extent to which human activity, down to the molecular level, could be monitored and manipulated by a malevolent power.

“Smart Cities” has become a tool of social control. For example, the IBM Forum lauded Operation Virtual Shield in Chicago, the citywide camera security system. This “smart” technology has been used to intensify the “war on crime and drugs,” which has become a war on community members who are affiliated with or related to gangs, or who live in those communities.

Third, there is little evidence that such systems are evolving as two way streets, in which service providers insure smart services, but the recipients also have the capability for oversight of the service providers. Put in other terms, it is one thing to improve technology, but quite another to improve government. Albert Einstein understood this when he said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Do we have the potential, as Palmisarno argued, “both technological and political," to make our cities smarter, more prosperous, more progressive? Only if creating smarter cities leads to equitable cities can we rest assured that the “smart city” is more than a creative business plan…

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.