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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Is there a downside to "intelligent cities" or "smart cities"?

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 3, 2011

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  "the 21st century" (by: izumi_mitatami, creative commons license)

"Intelligent cities" and "smart cities" are all the rage right now, especially in corporate image advertising related to emerging technology.  But is there a downside?

I think there may be, insofar as those phrases are used to describe tech-based panaceas for urban problems whose roots lie not in a lack of sophisticated information flow but in a half-century or more of dumb growth patterns, central-city disinvestment and poor neighborhood design.   

Just a couple of days ago, I mentioned the clearly discernible trend of large, multinational corporations working to get ahead of the sustainability curve and position themselves as leaders in 21st-century management systems that can help cities.  This is mostly a very good thing, since more forward thinking by corporations about solving our environmental and social problems can indeed help.  Many of us have already seen how smart-phone apps of various kinds, real-time information at transit stops, and tech-based tools like Google Earth and Walk Score have empowered planners, civic leaders, and ordinary people like you and me to live and work better.  More of this is to be applauded.

But futuristic technology won’t fix many of our basic urban problems, any more than “gizmo green” add-ons to buildings will overcome the unsustainability inherent in lousy building locations or lousy architecture.  Sprawl will still be sprawl; disinvestment will still be disinvestment; traffic will still be traffic; sprawl-aided obesity will still be obesity.

Here’s my friend Steve Mouzon on “gizmo green”:

“Gizmo Green, unfortunately, constitutes a huge percentage of today’s sustainability discussion. Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs. Buy a Prius. Buy some bamboo... and everything will be OK. Or will it?

"computer city" (by: hollygon21, creative commons license)“The Gizmo Green focus allows us to ignore huge essential facets of sustainability that have nothing to do with equipment or materials. For example, why are we even discussing the carbon footprint of a building if it is built somewhere that requires you to drive everywhere? Or what is the value of the carbon footprint of a building once its parts are carted off to the landfill because it could not be loved?”

I believe the very same principles apply to “gizmo cities.”

So forgive me if I think some of the marketing for this mostly-good gadgetry is over the top, and if I find to be dangerous the claims of some that the more trendy phrasing and theory of “intelligent cities” is beginning to displace that of now-mainstream “smart growth.”  Whether we call more compact and logical regional growth patterns, more accessible and efficient public transit, and more walkable neighborhood design “smart growth” or “urbanism” or something else, we still need to do it and not let ourselves be seduced into thinking that the problems are being addressed adequately or better by technology.  They are not.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s planning director, agrees:

Although many such products sound useful, this feels like part of the ‘technology will save us’ movement, which in its worst moments, uses up city funds while giving cities ‘permission’ not to make the hard choices that will really work to make us more resilient and successful.  This seems more common in America than elsewhere, where the feeling that the marketplace will respond and provide products to fix problems, still has resonance.

“At a conference late last year in Spain, I found myself on panels discussing new technologies that will improve cities, bike lane in Vancouver (by: Paul Krueger, creative commons license)surrounded by tech-company reps hard-pitching to a global audience.  I likely disappointed them, by stating that in my opinion the ‘technologies’ that will do the most good, are not new - compact, mixed-use, walkable communities; bikes, separated bike lanes and bike sharing; transit; small scale innovation like wheeled luggage; simple techniques that we've forgotten like passive building design; or globally-understood tech like district/neighborhood energy based on renewable resources. But those big companies weren't selling those products. They were selling smart city solutions.”

Vancouver has had the benefit of good planning now for some time, and there is little question that the city has been doing something right:   Scoring 140 cities worldwide on 30 key factors, The Economist just named it the most livable city in the world, for the third straight year.  I’m sure Brent wouldn’t claim credit for that (nor would he deserve all of it), but the work of his office is absolutely a contributing factor in making his city more hospitable and functional.

I am certainly not opposed to technology.  I’m writing this on a high-powered computer, whose broadband connection and interface with Google just enabled me quickly to track down Steve’s and Brent’s quotes, plug them into this narrative, and store the whole thing to a flash drive, so later I can plug this post into NRDC’s blogging software.  When it’s published, I’ll let my Facebook friends and Twitter followers know.  Long live high-tech, say I.  But, in the meantime, let’s don’t forget the basics.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Warren KarlenzigMar 3 2011 05:20 PM

You are so right, Kaid, as is Bent Todarian.

Behavior, planning, policy (including incentives/ disincentives) and management are probably 75-90 percent of the sustainability solution. The remainder of solutions are comprised in communications and analytical/ control technologies that allow people to transform the way they live while influencing better policy and urban management. Some examples include: technologies that reduce travel and congestion; improve energy production and energy efficiency; and enable risk modeling and combined city resource and financial life cycle modeling. Some are as simple as broadband, Twitter (cab sharing) and Facebook (traffic monitoring in Dehli), while other technologies are not widely available or are in specialized applications for urban experts.

The climate benefits of information and communications technology will outpace by a considerable margin the climate impacts of technology. The need for cities is to make sure technology by itself is not the only answer. Only with innovative leadership can the real "smart cities" prosper from system approaches utilizing public participation, effective planning, and deep and broad expertise, leading toward effectively leveraging technology.

Mind, the whole Gizmo City mentality is a significant advance on the rage from five years ago, remember? "Lightbulbs!"

SteveMar 3 2011 10:51 PM

"Gizmo City" is such a great term! Matter of fact, I commented on one of your posts recently, Kaid, that we need to take some time to create compelling diagrams that tell our stories, so that we don't have to be there to tell them ourselves. In the extreme, we can die, and the story continues to be told through the diagrams. The flip side to this is in terms like Gizmo City because a great term can carry meaning far beyond the originator. And it's only when we foster ideas that spread that we really do any good, because nobody I know will meet enough people in their lifetime to, if they convinced them all to live differently, really make a difference. So we really need both the diagrams and the terms that take on lives of their own and can eventually spread without us.

Charlie KaylorMar 7 2011 04:35 PM

Kaid Benfield is right.
Yes, Gizmo Green seems to be the composite vision of green advertising. Quite true, no new technological product will redeem a sustainable future. And, indeed, rampant consumerism may in fact be a large component of our present unsustainable course.
So, sure, it's pretty easy to deconstruct Gizmo Green as a failed guarantor of sustainability. But to conflate technology with technological products would be a mistake, as is suggested at the end of Benfield's piece.
Perhaps it's fair to say that planners understand the future of technology just as well as technologists understand the future of cities, places, and spaces.
Yet, isn't that the whole reason why planners should insinuate themselves more forcefully into imagining, designing, and building policies toward the technologized future? I.e., if Gizmo City is one potential "imaginary," then shouldn't we all make sure that the we move toward a different one?

Jerry RoaneMar 7 2011 10:11 PM

How do you determine what technology will come along to solve the problem of sustainability with respect to energy and air pollution? Walkable is just wishism. Cars that are efficient enough to run on the energy of the sun that hits the path of the car would be sustainable. With such a device then you wouldn't need to be intrusive in the lives of citizens. You could just live and let live if cars did not pollute or suck fossil fuels. You are being a little blind to what technology can do if you limit what you will accept what it might do in the future. Even without a crystal ball but using today's patents at the patent office cars can drive on PV solar energy using the path of the car and without producing a single gram of air pollution. TriTrack is one such technology that exists today but the oil and gas interests have managed to stay on top still. Even with 150 a barrel oil earlier the world did not wise up and now with $105 oil we still have learned nothing. Walkable cities doesn't do jack for 95% of the population of the world. We need to advance transportation now. Wishing tech is not the solution is just wishful thinking. Any solution to world air pollution has to be scalable and be distributed world wide. Only tech shared can do this. Asking the world to walk when they are already walking is not going to work.

Craig HullingerMar 8 2011 08:19 AM

Most intelligent people embrace efforts towards sustainability. We can make our cities and our lifestyles much more eco friendly and efficient. Most of the smart growth and "green" efforts are all good. And most of new urbanism also is supportive of living green.

Of course the "greenest" lifestyle is a simple hunting and gathering lifestyle. The next "greenest" style would be a simple agrarian community without cars and minimal energy usage - the way much of the world still lives.

Most of us will not willingly return to that option, although it remains a choice that can be made. Buy a few acres, grow your own food, and stay off the energy grid.

One thing we should do is stop increasing the human population. Fewer people means less impact.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 8 2011 03:35 PM

Thanks for the perspectives, everybody.

Readers may wish to know that Mr. Roane, who commented above, is the inventor of a mobility device called the TriTrack:

"The TriTrack has been in development since the first oil embargo. Most recently, it has been adapted to be a dual mode car. Dual mode means the TriTrack can be driven both on the ground and on an elevated monorail. The TriTrack is a 4-passenger electric car with additional cargo space.

"On the ground, the TriTrack is powered by a battery mule stored on the underbelly of the car. When it gets on the guideway, the battery mule drops out of the TriTrack and a linear motor built into the guideway accelerates the car to cruising speed. A smaller battery inside the car maintains its speed on the guideway and a linear generator recaptures the car's energy as it comes down off the rail. When the car reaches the ground again, it picks up a different, fully charged battery mule and continues to its final destination."

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