December 17, 2013 By Robert Bell
This bracing question is posed on the Web site of The Economist, and visitors are invited to vote “yes” or “no” as well as to post their own comments. The voting closed with a hair-thin 54/46 victory for "no," which must be demoralizing for the brilliant technology companies promoting Smart City solutions.
I was one of the "no" votes. Smart Cities are not empty hype. But I suspect the current split decision reflects an uncomfortable truth: that the hype-to-reality ratio is pretty high.
Smart Cities are about using a new generation of cheap, powerful sensors, data storage and software to automate cities, in the same way we have automated factories over the past decades. They are about using information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less. Processes that once operated in the shadows become visible and measurable, which lets cities make better choices. Everything happens faster and more reliably, which makes constituents happy. Costs fall permanently because more efficient processes need fewer people to run them.
It’s all valuable. It’s just not the revolution that some claim it to be.
The revolution lies in taking the next step – in setting out on the path to become an Intelligent Community. Here, the goal is to do more with more. Intelligent Communities use ICT to generate more economic energy in the form of new employment from new employers and new industries. They work to break down social and cultural barriers that hold back part of their populations, allowing the benefits of a knowledge-based economy to spread far and wide. They even use ICT to strengthen, preserve and extend the culture of communities – that invisible glue that binds together individuals into a whole and makes a place into a home.
I would go so far as to say that Smart Cities are about adapting to limits – to shrunken municipal budgets, lower ambitions, and a vision of the future less prosperous than today. Intelligent Communities are about envisioning a future limited only by our imaginations and our ambitions for the place we live, work and raise the next generation. Municipal leaders need to respect the limits of the present. But those limits should never be permitted to define the future.
About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at www.intelligentcommunity.org.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.