Urban researcher takes (wrong-headed) slap at smart cities

Tue, 2013-07-16 06:14 -- Jesse Berst

By Jesse Berst

Townsend smart cities bookYou have to appreciate the irony. Futurist and urban researcher Anthony Townsend is on a promo tour for his forthcoming book Smart Cities. He's trying to drum up interest in smart cities by... well, by denigrating smart cities.

NPR was one of his promotional stops, where he recorded an interview. You can see excerpts or the full interview here. Townsend complains to NPR that Rio de Janeiro's famous unified operations center should be treated "with a great deal of skepticism. The technology that runs this operation center really isn't doing all that much. It's basically just bringing a few video feeds into a central room where, you know, the government can take pictures and say that they're doing a lot to keep the city under control."

Rio unified operations centerI disagree on two fronts. First, just the ability to gain real-time situational awareness of a major city is a remarkable accomplishment. It has only been in the past few years that we have been able to get a comprehensive, up-to-the-second view of complex systems such as electricity grids, urban transportation networks and now entire cities. Second, Rio is doing far more than staring at video feeds. For instance, it is using sophisticated algorithms to predict where floods will hit, so they can dispatch emergency responders in advance. Watch a short video on Rio's operations center >>

In his zeal to make controversial statements to bring attention to his book, Townsend also strays into conspiracy theory. When asked about the dangers of smart city technology, Townsend replied "in many cases with technologies, like cloud computing, the infrastructure that's providing a service to that city... may not actually be physically located in that city. It may not even be in the same country. And so, essentially a city is outsourcing its brains."

In reality, cloud computing may be the best news of all for cities. A smart city is a system of complex systems. It requires ultra-robust, enterprise-class computing to produce that kind of integration. Without cloud computing, only the largest cities could afford to participate. With cloud computing, the benefits of smart computing are available to virtually any city of any size.

To be fair, Townsend says plenty of good things about technology, even admitting that "it's really our only hope right now." And to be fair, it is important for cities to approach technology with caution and common sense. In that sense, Townsend is doing the industry a favor by forcing us to consider the risks early in the process, so we can find the answers that will unleash the sector.

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.