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Are Cities Wise to Be Smart?



Cable cars move commuters over a complex of shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro.
Cable cars move commuters over a complex of shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, one of many cities taking part in the smart city boom around the world.

July 15, 2013 By

In 2008, several factors converged to add significant momentum to the idea of smart cities.

In that year, the world became half urban, meaning one out of every two inhabitants was a city dweller for the first time in history, NYU's Anthony Townsend explained to NPR. The recession that occurred in 2008 also led to aggressive private-sector marketing of technology solutions to government as a means of addressing urbanization, he noted, and the dominance of Internet-connected objects outpaced Internet-connected people in 2008, as ratcheting up the rise of smart cities.

Townsend, research director at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank Institute for the Future and a senior research fellow at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, acknowledges that there are benefits to be gained from integrating technology into government. The practice can help cities run more efficiently, for example.

"It's a wonderful thing, and I think it's really our only hope right now, given the challenges we face in the coming century around climate change [and] mass urbanization all over the planet," Townsend said to NPR's David Greene.

But he suggests that more attention be given to the fact that private-sector companies are not just delivering a project and walking away. With the rise of technologies like cloud computing, industry partners stay on to operate and maintain technology infrastructure -- tasks traditionally reserved for city staff.

"They [companies] stay involved, and, you know, in many cases with technologies, like cloud computing, the infrastructure that's providing a service to that city -- say, you know, running the traffic signals -- may not actually be physically located in that city. It may not even be in the same country. And so, essentially a city is outsourcing its brains."


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