Future Everything: Smart Cities vs Smart Citizens

Future Everything: Smart Cities vs Smart Citizens

On the first day of the Future Everything conference a thesis seemed to be emerging. That the future of the city was going in one of two directions. On one hand was presented the cold, planned, infrastructure of efficiency proposed by governments and major corporations. One the other was the messy, organic, joyful improvisation of citizens. These two were presented as something of a binary choice by a number of speakers, with a pretty clear bias as to which they preferred.

I missed the first speaker of the day, while giving a presentation myself elsewhere. But I caught him — Dan Hill, CEO of Fabrica — speaking the previous night at the launch event and read his theories online here.

Dan is a very engaging speaker and though my natural inclination towards concision found his essay a little extended for the argument he was making, it is nonetheless fascinating. I’ll try and précis in many fewer words here.

Dan argues that the debate around ‘smart cities’ today is dominated by large corporations promoting a vision of efficiency. When in fact efficiency is not necessarily a desirable objective for many of the key functions of a city. Rather the corporations are using this as a drive to increase network traffic and so increase demand for their own products. By contrast the real innovation is being driven by smart citizens using social media to self-organise and drive change. This progressive thinking and acting is in dramatic contrast to our rather 19th century means of decision making. Dan believes we do need to update our infrastructure but doing so through the corporate/old government approach risks leaving us with dated infrastructure that doesn’t do what we need and locks us into long term issue much like the promotion of the car over public transport has over the last 50 years.

The afternoon debate featured Usman Haque, creator of Pachube (now Cosm), designer, artist and architect and Martijn de Waal, journalist and founder of the Dutch think tank, The Public Matters.

Usman explained how the very nature of the city makes it a ‘wicked’ problem — a definition created in the 1970s to categorise problems that for various reasons are difficult or even impossible to solve. He argued that the sheer ‘messy’ complexity of interactions that make up a city mean that a centrally-planned solution will never deliver efficiency or even any desirable outcomes. Especially if those outcomes rely on the collection of endless amounts of data for someone else to ‘do good’ with.

Martijn gave three examples of smart city development from around Seoul in South Korea including Hongdae and Songdo. Songdo is the archetype of the centrally planned, corporately-driven smart city. And as you might expect it looks pretty soulless so far. What it also is, more surprisingly, is largely devoid of smart city technology — sensors, communications etc. This is all yet to come, despite the marketing hype. Hongdae is a much more organic development from sleepy suburb into jumping urban development, with relaxed planning laws enabling rapid revitalisation and renewal. His third example was of a very engaged approach taken by Seoul city hall, where they are working with citizen groups to advance problems — for example using a social platform to work with local environmental groups to help uncover where a batch of radioactive tarmac had been accidentally laid, and track its removal and replacement.

In the keynote on day two, author Anthony Townsend asserted similar concerns to Dan Hill, while acknowledging the role that companies like IBM have played in the successful smart city experiments to date. And it was something that Townsend said that really crystallised my issue with the binary choice between soft and organic, and hard and corporate.

He suggested that while one is like the mainframe, the other is like the internet: created in a distributed fashion from the ground up. Well the internet may have been built on open standards, and many of its outposts may have been constructed by hobbyists and communities. Indeed this is where the most interesting developments are happening today. But the superstructure of the internet was built by commercial entities, investing and often losing vast sums of money deploying global fibre, data centres and networks. Without that corporate investment, who would have created the incredibly expensive inter-city and inter-continental links that now bring us our videos, mails and social networks?

I believe that smart cities will be the same. There is a level of infrastructure required — power, waste, connectivity, sensing — that almost certainly will not be built organically by community groups. There will be outposts of DIY but mass coverage — the superstructure — will need to come from commercial entities, some of which will succeed, some of which will fail. We will have to trade something to these entities in order to make it worth their while to invest. And yes, we may not like those costs in the long run. But ultimately they will drive progress faster than if we leave everything to hackers and organic growth.

The analogy I offer is the difference between a house and a home. You can build your own house, and some people do. But for the vast majority, we buy a house. We don’t like the long term cost and the house we choose will usually be a compromise. But we turn it into a home with the changes we make: the sounds, smells, and colours that we add.

Cities are the same: it’s going to be a long time until society evolves past the point where the market is the primary driver for investment. And until that point if we want our cities to be smarter, we need to swallow a degree of corporate investment and recognise that the humanity, the interest, the things that make great cities, are the things that we build on top of this superstructure, not in place of it.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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