Voices of Digital Communities

Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?

Municipal leaders need to respect the limits of the present. But those limits should never be permitted to define the future.

by / December 17, 2013

This bracing question is posed on the Web site of The Economist, and visitors are invited to vote “yes” or “no” as well as to post their own comments.  The voting closed with a hair-thin 54/46 victory for "no," which must be demoralizing for the brilliant technology companies promoting Smart City solutions.  


I was one of the "no" votes. Smart Cities are not empty hype.  But I suspect the current split decision reflects an uncomfortable truth: that the hype-to-reality ratio is pretty high.  

Smart Cities are about using a new generation of cheap, powerful sensors, data storage and software to automate cities, in the same way we have automated factories over the past decades. They are about using information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less.  Processes that once operated in the shadows become visible and measurable, which lets cities make better choices.  Everything happens faster and more reliably, which makes constituents happy.  Costs fall permanently because more efficient processes need fewer people to run them. 

It’s all valuable.  It’s just not the revolution that some claim it to be.

The revolution lies in taking the next step – in setting out on the path to become an Intelligent Community.  Here, the goal is to do more with more.  Intelligent Communities use ICT to generate more economic energy in the form of new employment from new employers and new industries.  They work to break down social and cultural barriers that hold back part of their populations, allowing the benefits of a knowledge-based economy to spread far and wide.  They even use ICT to strengthen, preserve and extend the culture of communities – that invisible glue that binds together individuals into a whole and makes a place into a home.  

I would go so far as to say that Smart Cities are about adapting to limits – to shrunken municipal budgets, lower ambitions, and a vision of the future less prosperous than today.  Intelligent Communities are about envisioning a future limited only by our imaginations and our ambitions for the place we live, work and raise the next generation.  Municipal leaders need to respect the limits of the present.  But those limits should never be permitted to define the future.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.