Smart Cities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

More and more devices are plugging into your government’s corner of the Internet of Things (IoT), but are we truly implementing the right projects in 'smart' ways? Here’s what you need to know about the state of smart cities opportunities along with some potholes to avoid and questions to be answered.

by / July 2, 2016
Credit Shutterstock/hin255

From watching tennis at Wimbledon to emptying soap dispensers in washrooms in big cities, everyday life is getting connected in smarter ways all over the planet.

And the Internet of Things (IoT) is making everything we do within government work better. Or is it?

No doubt, the world is full of many excellent smart cities case studies demonstrating benefits, and smart cities resources continue to expand at a rapid rate. Nevertheless, there are certainly some less-than-stellar stories worth noting. Since we can often learn more from failures than successes, it is time to ponder what not to do.

Smart Cities: Good Examples Abound

Any list of smart city “good news” stories must begin with the city of Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) announced last week that Columbus has been selected to receive $40 million as the winner of the Smart City Challenge.

According to Transportation Secretary Foxx, Columbus won the challenge for several reasons. Foxx said in a blog post that: “Columbus’ proposal puts people first. They plan to install street-side mobility kiosks, a new bus rapid transit system, and smart lighting to increase safety for pedestrians and improve access to health care for traditionally underserved areas and neighborhoods. 

“We predicted that the cities would formulate partnerships and that proved to be true. When you aggregate all the matching funds that all the cities came up with, it was in excess of $500 million,” he noted. “In Columbus’ case, they have very strong private-public partnerships and were able to put together $90 million from various parts of their business and civic community.”

Also, more Columbus executives will drive electric vehicles as a result of the Smart City Challenge win.  

Here is the #SmartCityPitch for #SmartColumbus (in video):

In another contest in the UK, Peterborough City Council recently won the AWS (Amazon Web Services) Global Public Sector Smart City Award. The council has won the top prize of $25,000 worth of promotional credits that can be used to offset its AWS cloud infrastructure costs. And there are plenty of other smart cities grants and awards worth noting from around the world. 

Meanwhile, this "smart states" story from Government Technology highlights the significant advances being made by states like Illinois.

A report released on February 23, 2016 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Technology and the Future of Cities, lays out why now is a good time to promote technologies for cities. Topics include: more (and more diverse) people are living in cities; people are increasingly open to different ways of using space, living, working, and traveling across town; physical infrastructures for transportation, energy, and water are aging; and a wide range of innovations are in reach that can yield better infrastructures and help in the design and operation of city services. 

Finally, a new agreement between Cisco and the government of Israel covers many topics, including smart cities and innovation centers.

But moving on, I want to cover some other less-positive trends that are also emerging around smart cities. Over the past decade, I have used this “good, bad and ugly” in cyberspace theme on topics ranging from cloud computing to mobile devices to cyber FUD to Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. I think it is important to address the hard-to-answer questions, such as the approach taken in this piece relating to BYOD cost savings or this piece on cybermetric deception with fake clicks.

I mention those other examples only to show that I am not singling out smart cities for criticism. 

The Bad

One of the difficult challenges we are facing with IoT and smart cities is the reality that technology is outpacing policy. John Hayduk writes:

Today’s leaders and lawmakers face the unenviable challenge of keeping up with a deluge of new technologies that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Drones, self-driving cars, advanced surveillance, digital finance, smart cities and robotics are just a handful of examples that have the potential to transform the way we live.

Falling behind puts us at risk of two distinct threats. On one hand, advancement and adoption may be stifled by concerns about murky policy or a lack of accepted technological standards. On the other, innovation without thoughtful oversight raises the specter of security, privacy and ethical breaches. ...”

Furthermore, this article for The Urban Technologist in the UK outlines six “inconvenient truths” about smart cities:

1) The “Smart City” isn’t a technology concept; it’s the political challenge of adapting one of the most powerful economic and social forces of our time to the needs of the places where most of us live and work

2) Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved.

3) We can’t leave Smart Cities to the market, we need the courage to shape the market.

4) Smart cities aren’t top-down or bottom-up. They’re both.

5) We need to tell honest stories.

6) No-one will do this for us — we have to act for ourselves.

As you probably expect, there are many cybersecurity and privacy concerns with smart cities and the wider IoT topics. While I won’t cover those issues here, several of those topics are covered in this webcast on IoT security (Note this is in the new “blab” format, which requires a free logon to watch.) This discussion on IoT security risks includes participants Richard Stiennon, Dan Lohrmann, Andrew Borene and Scott Schober. 

And here are another “5 Reasons That Smart Cities Fail” by Frank Rayal. The top item listed is budget problems, and that issue is not going away.

Finally under the “bad” label, we have the reality that for all of these smart city competition winners, there are many more cities that do not win (and get grant funding.) For example, many articles were written about the city of Austin, Texas, not being selected in its smart city bid.

Now This Is Getting Ugly

There are plenty of commentators online saying that the "smart city mania" around the world is full of hype or unreasonable expectations.

But perhaps the ugliest 'smart city' situation (or global story) that I’ve recently read about comes from this article in The Indian Express. Namely, Sunita Narain believes that: “People are becoming intolerant because our lives are getting ‘bubble wrapped.’” Or, in other words, there is danger if smart cities only benefit the wealthy.

Here’s an excerpt:

Taking up the case of Lutyens Delhi, which will be developed as one of the smart cities by the government, she said “I called it ‘Lutayan’ (Lutneys) Delhi. This is India’s biggest gated community. Smart city was a good idea. But you (government) decided to invest in its own area which is already very clean.

“It is creating a huge difference between this (developed area) and the rest of the world. This idea is creating a global view that we should only ensure cleanliness of our backyard,” she added.

Explaining intolerance, Narain continued saying that it was because of the enormous differences being created between places which are green and good and the rest of the world, that we were becoming more and more intolerant. She said that it has become difficult to put forth an inconvenient message as people today lived in a “bubble wrap” where they only listened to what they wanted. ...

Some articles on the same theme even highlight when smart cities are stupid.

More dangerously, the planned towns and cities we now see coming up across Asia and Africa are almost exclusively for the wealthy. Unlike their socialist European forebears of the 20th century, these developments are initiated, planned and built by the private sector, which means, simplistically: They are profit-driven.

Final Thoughts:

Late last year, The University of Melbourne in Australia held a seminar titled, Future Cities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The presentation featured world-renowned British urban planner and geographer Professor Mike Batty and a panel of Australian experts. For anyone remotely interested in this topic, the video is worth watching.

I want to close by saying that I am an optimist and a supporter of many smart cities initiatives. I think we will overcome these obstacles, and the private sector can be a good partner in making more smart government solutions a reality going forward.

Nevertheless, we must listen to both sides of these arguments and be ready to enable the good and address the bad and ugly issues that are now surfacing.

Just as we have done with problems encountered with early adopters of cloud computing and other technological solutions, I am confident that we will be successful in building inclusive smart cities around the world that benefit everyone whether rich or poor.