How Cities Lost Control of the Urban Revolution (or, Three Generations of Smart Cities)


I was a columnist in the print edition of Governing magazine for about five years. Sadly, the publication closed last year. But the company who owned it has relaunched Governing as an online only publication focused on the intersection of technology and public policy.

I’m delighted to be able to contribute to this new platform. My first column is online and is about how cities lost control of the urban tech movement. In I trace three generations of “smart cities,” and how while the government was in the drivers seat in the first two, they have largely been bypassed by the private sector in the third generation. Here is an excerpt:

For many years we’ve been promised that the marriage of technology and the city, the “smart city,” would revolutionize urban life. But for a long time the term has essentially been a buzzword attached to different concepts over three distinct generations, accompanied by generous measures of hype and, lately, some serious questions about who’s in the driver’s seat.

Major technology purveyors who hoped to sell enterprise-level solutions for things like managing water and sewer systems or automating transit operations backed the first major wave of smart cities. Companies like Cisco, Schneider Electric, IBM and Bombardier sponsored conferences and touted their solutions. And they delivered some impressive showpieces, such as the command center IBM built for Rio de Janeiro, which was featured in a TED talk by then-Mayor Eduardo Paes. Songdo in South Korea was an entirely new urban business district built around this type of technology vision.

This generation of smart cities was the product of companies that had a long history of focusing on client needs. As a result, their solutions were about empowering their government clients. Rio’s command center enabled the city to better manage its operations, for example. But it turned out that there weren’t that many cities willing or able to purchase this kind of very expensive solution. This generation of smart cities continues on: The new fare system being installed by the New York City region’s transit network is an example. But it didn’t revolutionize city life.

A second generation of American smart cities came in the form of the open-data movement. Governments at all levels decided to post their data online or even make it available in real time through application program interfaces allowing the public, software developers and others to use it for their own purposes. As with the Rio command center, this form of smart cities had an immediate big win: transit tracker apps. All of a sudden it was possible to see when the next bus was coming right on your phone. This was a game changer for riders in cities like Chicago.

But this also failed to deliver much in the way of fundamental urban transformation. For one thing, the data was often poorly organized. The federal website was just page after page of file listings with little order. A lot of open data needed cleaning up, coding and cross-referencing. Ultimately, plenty of fancy data visualizations were created, but few killer apps.

Unlike the first-generation wave of smart cities, which was about technology vendors empowering city governments, the open-data wave was about cities empowering citizens. But the city was still the key driver. (As it turned out, some of the best uses of open data turned out not to require openness to the public at all. It was government agencies themselves becoming more sophisticated about using data analytics to guide their actions.)

Today's third generation of smart cities is something completely different....

Click through to read the whole thing.

Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities and people thrive and find real success in the 21st century. He also regularly contributes to and is cited by national and global media outlets, and his work has appeared in the The Guardian (UK), The New York Times, and The Washington Post, along with many others. Renn was a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute from 2015-2019 and is a Contributing Editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal.

Photo credit: Mark Goble via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.