Will we be dumb about smart cities?

Mon, 2013-05-20 11:47 -- Jesse Berst

By Jesse Berst
Chairman, Smart Cities Council

I come from the smart grid industry, where I saw both vendors and utilities act very dumb about the right ways to introduce smart technology. Many of them took a top-down approach, imposing new technology on customers without notice or consultation. And many of them suffered big-time pushback as a result.

With that lesson in mind, industry has a chance to do a much better job with smart cities. I urge you to read freelancer Courtney Humphries's article in the Boston Globe as a reminder of the issues that will crop up unless we take a different approach. Humphries warns of five preventable pitfalls:

  • Overhyping. She calls it "breathless coverage in science and business magazines."
  • Privacy and Big Brother. "A city tracking its citizens, even for helpful reasons, encroaches on the personal liberty we count on in public spaces."
  • Giving too much control and leverage to private industry which doesn't have a city's checks and balances.
  • Well-meaning but wrong-headed centralized planning like that which created  the low-income housing disasters of the '60s and '70s.
  • Permanently coding in prejudices and preferential treatment once we start allowing computers to make decisions.

The answers? For one thing, citizen engagement right from the start and in every phase. As Humphries says, an "open debate about how best to adopt [technology]." For another, industry needs to get ahead of the discussion rather than ducking down and hoping no one will notice. When we hear smart city suppliers and consultants talking about these issues, when we see them urging cities to deal with them up front, then we'll know they've learned the lessons from the smart meter fiascos and are taking a more enlightened approach to smart cities.