Big IT vendors, civic hackers and the future of ‘Smart Cities’

'Smart Cities'

Much like “green” has done for the sustainability movement, the term “smart cities” has brought as much skepticism as enthusiasm for an ambiguous, over-marketed term used to describe the end product of the new urbanist movement.

But what exactly is a smart city?

Is it a top-down approach driven by large-scale, proprietary technology solutions orchestrated by big government technology vendors? Or, is it a more organic, distributed, modular, open source approach that expects citizens, civic leaders and the private sector to collaborate and co-create?

That’s what Anthony Townsend tries to answer in “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Question for a New Utopia.” In the process, we get an excellent historical perspective on urban planning as a discipline, the roles and philosophies of its founders, as well as in-depth insight into the new players, from big vendors to civic hackers, emerging to stake a claim in what smart means for the city of the future.

Especially insightful is Townsend’s prescription for the future of the smart city.

While “Smart Cities” was published in 2013, it’s still a relevant and highly-recommended resource for those who want to understand the new urbanist landscape, how it’s unfolding and where you might fit in.

Favorite excerpts:

“All over the world, a motley assortment of activists, entrepreneurs, and civic hackers are tinkering their ways toward a different kind of utopia. They eschew efficiency, instead seeking to amplify and accelerate the natural sociability of city life. Instead of stockpiling big data, they build mechanisms to share it with others. Instead of optimizing government operations behind the scenes, they create digital interfaces for people to see, touch, and feel the city in completely new ways. Instead of proprietary monopolies, they build collaborative networks. These bottom-up efforts thrive on their small scale, but hold the potential to spread virally on the Web. Everywhere that industry attempts to impose its vision of clean, computed, centrally managed order, they propose messy, decentralized, and democratic alternatives.

“It’s only a matter of time before they come to blows.”

“The technology giants’ designs are a twenty-first-century upgrade to a twentieth century paternalism, an attempt to solve all of our problems for us. But in doing so, these designs fail to realize the full potential of smart cities.”

“The technology giants building smart cities are mostly paying attention to technology, not people, mostly focused on cost effectiveness and efficiency, mostly ignoring the creative process of harnessing technology at the grass roots.”

“When you create urban software, make it simple, modular and open source. Anytime you generate a new data stream, document and archive it as openly as you can.”

“So who is going to design the smarty city of the future, if the geeks on both sides of the street don’t truly grok the challenge? In the end it will be up to the mayors and their teams. They’ll hedge their bets, buying things from corporations while simultaneously seeding grassroots efforts to solve the same challenges. When that doesn’t work, they’ll just build their own. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done with the limited resources they have.”

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.