Smart city vendors: What cities fear about you (and why)

Wed, 2013-11-06 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

If you sell smart city products and services, it's helpful to know what your customers want. Yet it's even more valuable to know what they fear. Customers will often admit what they want. But they will rarely admit their suspicions to your face.

That's why I suggest you skim a recent article from the MIT Sloan Management Review. It contains a useful discussion of smart city concerns currently being noised about by certain pundits. The article summarizes two earlier pieces: The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism by Rob Kitchin, a researcher at the National University of Ireland; and What if the smart cities of the future are chock full of bugs? by Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future.

Some of these concerns are legitimate, others manufactured. But as we saw in the smart grid sector, it never pays to dismiss fears, even if you think they are silly. (Several electric power utilities suffered protests and pushback from a small group of customers who believe smart meters produce radiation that damages their brains.)

The article lumps the concerns into several odd groups. I've listed them individually below. My advice to suppliers is to address them proactively when talking to customers. (Remember -- they probably won't admit their suspicions, so you can't wait for them to ask.) -- Jesse Berst

Smart cities will lock us into a certain approach and a certain group of vendors. "Smart-city technologies are being heavily promoted by a number of the world’s largest software services and hardware companies" writes author Renee Boucher Ferguson, creating the fear of a "technology lock-in that shackles cities to particular technology platforms and vendors."

Public services will be shanghaied for private profit. This issue often comes up in public-private partnerships and private concessions.

We will be shoe-horned into a one-size-fits all solution. Most smart city vendors of my acquaintance are very good at customizing solutions for each customer, yet this concern remains.

Smart cities will turn into Big Brother based on a combination of surveillance and "dataveillance."

Smart cities will be narrow technocracies. They rely too much on data from sensors and will fail to take account of culture, politics and other human factors.

Smart cities will be overly centralized. They will centralize data and decision making, giving too much power to a few departments.

Smart cities will be full of bugs. "Even when their code is clean, the innards of smart cities will be so complex that so-called normal accidents will be inevitable," writes Townsend. "The only questions will be when smart cities fail, and how much damage they cause when they crash."

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 Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.