When we were first married, my wife and I lived off canned soup and other prepackaged delights, until the urge for survival drove us to begin experimenting with the culinary arts. One of the first steps on our journey was a product called Shake ‘n Bake. You bought chicken parts , put them in a plastic bag with the product, shook it thoroughly to coat the meat, then baked it. What came out was a breaded entrée that tasted – well, at that time, I thought it tasted fine. Now that I can actually cook, I have a different view.
Shake ‘n Bake came to mind the first time I heard about ambitious plans for creating whole new cities to meet national economic development goals. My first exposure was to the Multimedia Super Corridor in Malaysia, a 1996 plan to create a high-tech corridor 15 kilometers wide and 50 km long where only rubber plantations then existed. The Corridor exists in name only but two Shake ‘n Bake cities were built: Putrajaya, where Malaysia’s government relocated in the last decade, and Cyberjaya, a vast technology park.
In 2010, construction began on Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, a $22 billion project that is designed to produce zero emissions or waste while becoming the core of a cleantech cluster in the Emirates. In Russia, MIT is developing a new university that aims to be the heart of the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a brainchild of former President Dmitry Medvedev that aims to inject high-tech cool into the heart of Moscow. Still on the drawing board are Charter Cities, a concept developed by economist Paul Romer for “reform cities” that, planted in developing nations with weak governance and poor infrastructure, are supposed to serve as inspirational islands that will jumpstart broader changes across the country.
These are magnificent visions: soaring above the mundane, challenging precedent and inspiring high ambition. I think they may do some good. But I am really grateful that nobody is investing my money in them. The good they will do – those projects that ever get past the talking and planning stage, that is – will be a lot like the good done by America’s $40 billion investment in the Apollo program. America got a lot of nice TV footage and a flag planted on the Moon. America and the rest of the world also got an information and telecommunications industry that produced trillions of dollars in value and is still in the early stages of revolutionizing life on earth. A pretty good investment overall – but you don’t see any lunar colonies, do you?
I just don’t think we are smart enough to build Shake ‘n Bake cities that will actually work. The City of Tokyo used loans from the national government in the 1980s and 1990s to build a massive, $3 billion island in Tokyo Harbor to serve as a new high-tech district. Ten years later, a city executive told me the money was largely wasted.
I don’t think we know how to manage the long time span of the investments, the battle between vested interests, the legal and regulatory reforms needed, the national sensitivities and the personal egos involved. If cities are, in the words of Richard Florida, “our greatest inventions,” they are inventions arrived at after thousands of years of trial and error. They are complex in the same way that clouds are complex, and we apparently have no clue as to how those work.
To really appreciate that complexity, you have only to listen to a news story that was broadcast by America's National Public Radio in October. “Why New York Is A Hub In The Global Trinket Trade” explains the unlikely set of circumstances that have made 29th Street in Manhattan the hub of a global trade network in fake gold chains, souvenir lighters and plastic toys. Listen to it and then tell me: who could have anticipated that?
I think we can figure out, with the help of great technology companies, how to make cities smarter. I know we can rise to the greater challenge of the Intelligent Community: using information and communications technology to create new competitive advantages for your economy while solving big social problems and enriching the value of your culture. But throw a plan for a city into a bag, shake it, bake it and a few years later see a fully-functioning Smart City? I just don't think we're that smart.