A Smart City Can’t Just Be Built

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In Scientific American’s special issue on tomorrow’s cities, Carlo Rotti argues that smart-city planning needs to focus on people, not gadgets. Planned smart cities and houses, according to Rotti, will never succeed, because they attempt to anticipate residents’ needs—and those predictions will never quite get it right. Furthermore, heavily planned smart cities are too inflexible, locking people into systems that can’t be adjusted to individual needs and uses of technology. Instead, truly smart cities will follow a bottoms-up model:

Rather than focusing on the installation and control of network hardware, city governments, technology companies and their urban-planning advisers can exploit a more ground-up approach to creating even smarter cities in which people become the agents of change. With proper technical-support structures, the populace can tackle problems such as energy use, traffic congestion, health care and education more effectively than centralized dictates. And residents of wired cities can use their distributed intelligence to fashion new community activities, as well as a new kind of citizen activism.

 A true smart city will be more like Cairo—where protesters pooled knowledge during the campaign to overthrow Mubarak—not the uber-planned Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, says Rotti. City systems have to have the flexibility to accommodate new uses of technology; 20 years ago, the smart-city models might have anticipated roadways lined with sensors to detect traffic, but now there’s a cheaper, more efficient way to monitor congested highways: Google Maps, using information from volunteers’ cell phones, can pinpoint where the traffic is the worst.

Read more on Scientific American.