Split decision on ‘smart city’ hype

The technology press isn’t often great at challenging hype. Technology reporters breathe high-tech air all day, every day, and the technology can seem more ubiquitous, the reception more enthusiastic, than it is on occasion.

So leave it to The Economist to pose the question in a recent Economist Debates poll: Are smart cities empty hype?

The Economist formats its debates with a statement in favour of each motion and a statement opposing it; readers vote according to the merits. Not surprisingly, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, an vice-president emeritus with IBM Corp, provided the opposing statement; Big Blue has been leading the smart city marketing charge for a couple of years now. Anthony Townshend, research director of Institute for the Future, wrote in support.

Townshend called the notion of centralizing a city’s intelligence “quixotic at best,” writing that designers of “prototype” smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, and Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates “have ignored historical experience, how people shape cities, and the messy and organic nature of urban development. Sterile utopian enclaves, they have failed not only as real estate developments but also as incubators of future urban lifestyles.” Retrofits to existing infrastructure have been complex and underutilized, he argued.

Wladawsky-Berger called the leap to the data-driven city the 21st Century version of 20th Century electrification. “I strongly believe that digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” he wrote.

The winner, in split decision: smart cities are not empty hype, according to 54 per cent of the vote.

On the blog Digital Communities, Intelligent Community Forum founder Robert Bell, writing about the debate, said “the uncomfortable truth” is that the “hype-to-reality ratio is pretty high.” Cheap, powerful sensors, software and hardware are allowing cities to function more cost-effectively; in other words, do more with less. The smart cities revolution, he said, will be to do more with more.

The poll is closed, and you can’t contribute your comments to the debate any more, but the statements and comments from readers are still available on the Economist.


Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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