Today's burgeoning metropolis can be a "monster of productivity" – in some cases accounting for three times the gross domestic product of a country.
But, said Pedro Ortiz, former deputy mayor of Madrid and author of The Art of Shaping the Metropolis, the problem is these huge urban areas are not efficient. And it's a problem that's going to get worse.
"Some cities are growing by 7% every year," he said during a Smart Cities Council forum earlier this month. Many are growing 4% to 5% every year.
"When you grow in 14 years what you have grown in 2,000 years," he suggested, "that is explosion. That is not growth."
This is the first time in human kind, he said, that so many of the world's cities are so big. And because they are also so inefficient, he urged the city leaders and technology vendors gathered at the Council's forum to "imagine the potential we have to work on smart cities."
The limitation, of course, is money. When budgets are limited, the first priority is food and taking care of basic human needs.
What's important is a city's "software"
As a former city official himself, Ortiz acknowledges there may sometimes be concern among city leaders that smart city vendors are selling "disjointed technology gadgets."
What’s needed is a comprehensive vision, he said.
To help develop that vision -- especially when dealing with the complexity of a city and its siloed departments -- Ortiz believes it's critical to go to the top, to the mayor or minister in charge. That's where the right decisions get made, he said.
Yet at the same time, you have to recognize that cities are composed of both hardware and software. And in that regard what is important is the software -- which he describes as the social resources and human resources that make up a city. Put another way, it’s the people versus the logistics.
"To build up that software is extremely difficult because it is a system of values," he said.
His advice on smart city projects? The social equity approach would be to disburse investment so all benefit. Like in acupuncture, he suggested the trick is to use the needle locally with a strategy that will maximize outcomes globally.