See Inside September 2011

Harnessing Residents' Electronic Devices Will Yield Truly Smart Cities

The best way to harness a city's potential for creativity and innovation is to jack people into the network and get out of the way

Illustration by Oliver Munday

On January 25 the streets of Cairo erupted in protest against then president Hosni Mubarak’s repressive Egyptian regime. Over the next 72 hours the government shut down the country’s Internet service and mobile-phone system in an attempt to squelch the rebellion—to no avail: a rich ecosystem of Facebook conversations, Twitter outbursts and chat-room plans had already unified millions of Cairo’s people, who continued the relentless uprising. The government backed down and restored communications to keep the country’s economy on life support, but the masses kept up the pressure until Mubarak resigned 14 days later.

Just weeks before, during Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” dissident blogger and protest organizer Slim Amamou used the mobile social app Foursquare to alert his friends of his January 6 arrest. By “checking in” to Foursquare’s virtual depiction of the jail in Tunis where he was being held, Amamou revealed his location to a global web of supporters and immediately grabbed the international spotlight. The news stories sparked further uprisings, and longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was soon ousted.

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