From the thermostats on our walls to the sensors under the asphalt of our streets, digital technology – the so-called Internet of things – is pervading and infecting every aspect of our lives.

As this technology comes to cities, whether lazy suburban ones or frenetic urban centers, it is increasingly wearing the banner of “Smart Cities.” Like those other S-words and phrases, such as smart growth and sustainability, a smart city can be just about anything to anybody, and therein lies both its utility and danger. I use the term to mean the marrying of our places with the telecommunications revolution that has took hold over the last half century, including the silicon chip, the Internet, the fiber optic line and broadband networks.

Because this transformation is so broad and deep, it’s impossible to list or even dream of all the different ways we will reshape our communities, any more than we could 100 years ago name all the ways the then-new technologies of electricity or phone service would be employed. But we can list some of the ways digital technologies are being used right now. It’s sensors in sewers, face-recognizing cameras in plazas, and individual streetlights being controlled through a dial in an office at city hall. It’s entire new cities arising out of the ground, like Songdo in South Korea or others in the Middle East. 

“The old city of concrete, glass, and steel now conceals a vast underworld of computers and software,” writes Anthony M. Townsend in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for the New Utopia. “Not since the laying of water mains, sewage pipes, subway tracks, telephone lines, and electrical cables over a century ago have we installed such a vast and versatile new infrastructure for controlling the physical world.”

But as wondrous as these new technologies are, we should remember an old truth: Whether it’s the silicon chip or the entire Internet, they are just tools that deliver power and possibilities to whoever wields them. So, it’s important to know and to think about who will and should control these tools. A policeman can use street cameras with facial recognition software to look for a thief, or a dictator can use them to hunt for dissidents. So far, different cities even within the same country are answering that question differently.

One clear decision point for cities and states is how much control to keep in house, and how much to give to private companies. While countless private companies are involved, three big companies, IBM, Cisco and Siemens, use the label “smart cities” in various ways, and have attracted much of the attention. They have carved out different niches, if that word can be used for anything these giant companies do.

Siemens, a global giant founded in Germany in the mid-19th century, often works with private companies to install in-house systems for better building management, as well as with public organizations. It is currently working with New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to digitize ancient systems in the subways that space the trains apart. Cisco, a Silicon Valley powerhouse whose fortune grew out of routers, is supplying much of the hardware for cities, including entire digital cities from the ground up. Cisco designed and built the digital systems for Songdo, the new smart city under construction in South Korea. IBM, which sells its Smarter City software packages, says it has already worked with more than 2,000 cities around the globe to install systems that both monitor and take action among the many systems that are part of a modern-day city.

One of IBM’s showcases is Rio de Janeiro, a city that’s preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and recovering from devastating flash floods in 2010. In a new building, called the “Centro de Operacoes,” officials sit in a theater-sized room behind personal computer screens, while in front of them a giant screen beams out constant information on the city. These officials can monitor traffic, crime, flooding and energy use. They receive “crowd-sourced” information from citizens’ smart phones. In general, these systems work by collecting all this data – often called Big Data - from many sources, which is then analyzed for prescriptive use. Traffic jams can be eased before they occur, or streets repaired soon after damage is done. Water consumption can be fine-tuned.  As the technology is improved and cities grow comfortable with it, the goal is to speed the cycle of data collection and analysis, and then response.

These companies offer cities services and expertise at less cost in the short run. But they also may lock cities into proprietary systems that reduce incentives to cultivate in-house expertise. Can Rio de Janeiro really walk away from IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center, now that it’s up and running?

These are not new situations. States and cities in the past century have gotten into bed with railroad; water, gas and electricity companies; and telephone companies. Different cities and states have made different choices. Still doing well are the hundreds of publicly owned utilities and power cooperatives, which grew out of deep political battles before World War II over who would control the vital and still emerging technology of electricity. These companies range in size like the giant Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which provides precious H2O and electricity to more than 4 million people, to public utility companies serving small towns in North Carolina.

Cities and towns that opted for this approach, over the vociferous objections of private utility companies, have generally fared well. Los Angeles, for example, was a happy bystander to the seesawing utility rates in California during the 1990s, which many believed occurred when energy companies like Enron manipulated electrical rates.

Some cities and states already see the parallels and are installing their own fiber optic and broadband networks, and saying “No Thank You” to private companies. This is the municipal fiber movement, which can result in localities, regions or even states providing not only broadband, but telephone service, cable television and smart grids for electricity. Many are smaller towns and cities; often ones that already have a public power utility to build on.

Chattanooga has received a lot of attention for its fiber optic system run by the city agency EPB, which was created in the 1930s to supply electric power. Burlington, Vt., has a citywide fiber network that serves 16,000 households and 2,000 business, built independently of cable or other private utility companies. Other cities include Thomasville, Ga.; Spanish Fork, Utah; and Clarksville, Tenn.

History repeats itself. As happened with electric power in the early 20th century, private telecommunication companies, including giants like Comcast, are fighting to stop this movement. They apparently fear government as a competitor. They have used lawsuits to slow cities from installing or using fiber networks, and have lobbied, often successfully, state legislatures to prohibit such networks. About half of the states, including North Carolina, Texas and Minnesota, have laws that prevent or substantially impede cities from setting up their own broadband networks. (It’s as if Poland Springs or Perrier had persuaded state legislators to stop cities from creating public water systems.) The Federal Communication Commission is now discussing the possibility of stepping in to overrule these local prohibitions so that cities can proceed.

“Every community should decide for themselves what the best solution is, but many state laws take that decision out of their hands,” says Christopher Mitchell, who is leading the Community Broadband Network campaign through the Institute for Local Self Reliance, in Minneapolis.

While our cities will doubtless become digitally smarter in ways impossible to imagine, we should remember that some of the best changes in cities in recent years involved conceptual and political overhauls --  thinking different as Apple founder Steve Jobs said -- more than digital technology. These include the livable street movement, which grew out of an “ah ha” moment that streets can be more than just conduits for cars. This in turn has led to converting parts of streets over to bike paths and public plazas, and to reducing parking. It has led to the public bike share programs, which do use digital technology, but could arguably exist without it.

People were calling for public bike sharing programs two generations ago, and there were some limited attempts. What made them possible today is less the digital technology than the chutzpah of cities finding a means to distribute bicycles freely and encourage their use. Doubtless the best of the smart city initiatives in decades hence also will combine fertile combinations of imagination, technology and political will.

Bio: Alex Marshall is the transportation columnist for Governing Magazine and a senior fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City. His most recent book is The Surprising Design of Market Economies. He can be reached at: alex@rpa.org