A couple of weeks ago I participated in an online debate sponsored by The Economist. The debate was built around the question: Are Smart Cities Empty Hype? Defending the motion was Anthony Townsend, Research Director at the Institute for the Future and adjunct faculty member at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. I took the opposite side, arguing the case against the motion.
The debate consisted of three phases spread out over roughly ten days. We each first stated our respective positions in our opening statements, followed a few days later by our rebuttals, and then finally our closing statements. It was moderated by Ludwig Siegele, online business and finance editor at The Economist, who offered his own remarks in each phase of the debate. Throughout the process, people were invited to vote on the motion, as well as to post their own comments.
The debate was inspired, I believe, by The Multiplexed Metropolis, an article Siegele published in the September 7 issue of The Economist which explored the impact of big data on cities. He wrote that the vast amounts of data generated by the many social interactions taking place in cities might lead to a kind of second electrification, transforming 21st century cities much as electricity did in the past. “Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one,” he noted. “They are a long way from proving their case.”
In my opening statement, I said that I strongly believe that digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will make cities smarter and help transform them over time. My position is not surprising, given my affiliations with NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) and Imperial College’s Digital City Exchange, as well as my past involvements with IBM’s Smarter Cities and with Citigroup’s Citi for Cities initiatives. But, I totally understand why so many, - almost half of those voting and quite a few who left comments, - feel that smart cities are mostly hype. The case for smart cities is indeed far from proven.