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USA Real Estate Blog

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

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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.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Cover image credit: Shutterstock

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