A framework for thinking about smart cities

Cities are organisms, not machines

The growing appreciation of the importance of cities, especially by leaders in business and science, is much appreciated and long overdue.  Many have embraced the Smart City banner. But it seems each observer defines “city” in the image of their own profession.  CEOs of IT firms say that cities are “a system of systems” and visualize the city as an increasing and dense flow of information to be optimized.  Physicists have modeled cities and observed relationships between city scale and activity, treating city residents as atoms and describing cities as conforming to “laws.”

In part, these metaphors reflect reality.  In their function, cities have information flows and physical systems.  However, it is something more than its information flows and physical systems, and its citizens need to be viewed as something other than mindless atoms.

The prescriptions that flow from partial and incomplete metaphors for understanding cities can lead us in the wrong direction if we are not careful.  The painful lessons of seven decades of highway building in U.S. cities is a case in point.  Epitomized by the master builder, Robert Moses, we took an engineering view of cities, one in which we needed to optimize our cities to facilitate the flow of automobiles.  The massive investments in freeways (and the re-writing of laws and culture on the use of the right of way) in a narrow way made cities safe for much greater and faster travel–but at the same time they produced massive sprawl, decentralization and longer journeys, and eviscerated many previously robust city neighborhoods.

If we’re really to understand and appreciate cities, especially smart cities, our focus has to be elsewhere:  it has to be on people. We take the Jane Jacobs view: Cities are about people, and particularly about the way they bring people together.  We are a social species, and cities serve to create the physical venues for interaction that generate innovation, art, culture, and economic activity.

Technology shouldn’t be just about optimizing the status quo

So building a smart city isn’t really about using technology to optimize the efficiency of the city’s physical sub-systems.  There’s no evidence that the relative efficiency of water delivery, power supply, or transportation across cities has anywhere near as strong an effect on their success over time as does education.

The big gains from technology come not from marginal improvements to existing organizational arrangements, but to the ability to create entirely new arrangements that create new value and opportunities to do different things in entirely different and better ways. When information technology was first introduced into the office, it was envisaged as primarily a way to “automate the typing pool”–improving the efficiency of a small army of women who did all the typing.  What it turned out to be was a way to dramatically reorganize corporate and managerial activity, and led to successive generations of entrepreneurship that have transformed economic activity and cities.

We can be blinded by big data

Much of the smart city discussion is highly technocratic:  If we just had perfect, detailed, real time information on say, traffic demand, we could optimize the function of our existing systems. The trouble with this is that in reality, the data that we have is always only partial, and importantly, has a strong status quo bias.  Take transportation data for example, it reveals a pattern of behavior that has emerged in response to the current pattern of land use and highway infrastructure.

We have copious data about automobile travel, and that avalanche of data effectively dominates thinking about transportation. We don’t measure whole categories of activity, like walking and cycling, and so they are invisible in policy discussions. More importantly, a vast treasure trove of data about existing travel patterns doesn’t tell us anything about what kind of places we might aspire to build.

This isn’t simply a matter of somehow instrumenting bike riders and pedestrians with GPS and communication devices so they are as tech-enabled as vehicles. An exacting count of existing patterns of activity will only further enshrine a status quo where cars are dominant. For example, perfectly instrumented count of pedestrians, bicycles, cars in Houston would show—correctly—little to no bike or pedestrian activity. And no amount of calculation of vehicle flows will reveal whether a city is providing a high quality of life for its residents, much less meeting their desires for the kinds of places they really want to live in.

Unintended consequences

As our experience with the private automobile shows, the advent of a new technology can have powerful unintended consequences. As with previous advances in transportation technology, the car generated a vast decentralization of population and economic activity–and this new pattern of suburban sprawl made us vastly more dependent on cars for transportation, and have been a principal contributor to air pollution and global warming. The consequences for cities have been devastating. For example, as Nathan Baum-Snow has illustrated, each additional radial freeway built to facilitate car travel reduced a city’s population by 18 percent.

Prices matter

While technology is important, new technologies are deployed and paid for in specific ways that materially affect how their impacts. A key reason for the dominance of the automobile in US cities is a series of public policy decisions that have subsidized the car and insulated car users from the economic, social and environmental costs that they create. We’ve provided very extensive freeway systems, and don’t charge users directly for their use. Our failure to price peak hour road use is the direct cause of recurring traffic congestion in US cities. We mandate that new housing and businesses build parking as a condition of development. Cars pay little or nothing toward offsetting the damage they do to the atmosphere.

If we project the existing system of financing and pricing forward with new technologies, we’re likely to only worsen many of the problems we face.  Cheap autonomous vehicles could further flood the nation’s already crowded transportation infrastructure. But technological inflection points are good opportunities to revisit financial and institutional arrangements.  Its worth recalling that the gas tax was invented a little over a century ago as a way to pay for roads:  in the horse and buggy era, we didn’t pay for roads with a tax on hay.  The advent of robust communication and geolocation systems for cars, coupled with the growing consumer familiarity with per trip and per mile pricing, illustrate the ways in which we could change

Ultimately, when we talk about smart cities, we should keep firmly in mind that they are fundamentally about people; they are about smart people, and creating the opportunity for people to interact.  If we continuously validate our plans against this key observation, we can do much to make cities smarter, and help them address important national and global challenges.