A Planet of Civic Laboratories
If the risk of visions like Masdar is their elitism and singular focus on efficiency, their advantage is clarity of purpose. The bottom-up smart city is a continual work in progress; its organic flexibility is also its biggest flaw. But as civic laboratories for urban innovation, these seemingly chaotic places are becoming part of a global movement. To make rapid progress, we need to build mechanisms for scanning, evaluating and cross-fertilizing good ideas—ways to spread the best methods for crowdsourcing public services or using citizens as sensors, just as we have in the past spread the best ideas for bus rapid transit or bike sharing.
Here is where mayors, architects, planners and technologists might play their most effective role in shaping truly smart cities—by marshaling and integrating the great engineering resources of top-down approaches with the innovation of grassroots initiatives. Governments in cities as diverse as New York City, London, Singapore and Paris are taking tentative first steps by making formerly private government data warehouses public. These resources are empowering entrepreneurs to come up with mobile software applications that meet citizen needs. But it is not clear how the entrepreneurs will sustain these efforts. The grassroots developers bring engagement and creativity to the table, but corporations and politicians are needed to scale and sustain the large systems that the innovations run on. After all, the revolutions of Cairo and Tunis played out on a mobile infrastructure built by Vodafone and other global companies.
It is also up to civic leaders to listen to citizens and together frame their own smart city vision. Every community faces a unique set of circumstances, as well as resources to address them. Some local experiments will morph into “best practices,” data sets, computer models and visualizations that can be repurposed elsewhere, but many of the best smart city solutions will be like the best urban experiences: unique, local and unreplicable—as they should be!
Smart Cities for All Time
Is Masdar really a glimpse into how we will live tomorrow? Or will it suffer the same fate as the machine universe of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis—another vision that will inspire designers but will ultimately fail to materialize? Masdar is perhaps a bit of both. It is providing an effective template for how to use pervasive computing to optimize urban systems, from transport to energy. Yet after five years and more than $1 billion, Masdar is also showing shortcomings of the centralized approach; a large replanning exercise will effectively turn it into a more conventional real estate development. More than smart systems that improve efficiency are needed to make the city “smart.”
Taking a more bottom-up view of how cities actually develop gives us an opportunity to radically rethink what intelligent, connected communities of the future could look like and how they can be designed, built and lived in. By empowering people to devise ways to run their daily lives as smartly as possible, we can make their extended community—the actual embodiment of a city—smarter, too.