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A Smarter City is Not Enough: Better Brains, Better Hearts

Greg Neichin

Most of us are well aware of the problem.  The world’s population is moving faster than ever into urban areas – 75% of the world’s people will be crammed into cities by 2050.  Many cities are already bursting at the seams and in the decades ahead we will face increasing resource shortages as we struggle to keep up with the basic power, water, waste, and transportation demands of these emerging mega-cities.   These are challenges on a truly epic scale.

Not to worry you say, there’s an app for that!

As they have in industry after industry, information technologists are rushing to the rescue heralding the age of the smart city. There are glowing editorials devoted to the promise of “Big Data” and how, with enough computing power (fueled by renewable energy of course!) we’ll be able to analytically crunch our way out of these problems.

New York City has received praise from the digerati for the city’s BigApps contest where public data is being made available for curious and motivated web developers.  Last week, the good people at the TED Prize announced that this year’s $100K award will be split up amongst the 10 best, individual ideas for empowering The City 2.0.

To be fair, the smart city movement is much more than experimental apps and startup projects.  The world’s largest IT vendors are all rapidly converging on the smart cities space.  IBM’s $14M, gleaming new city command center in the heart of Rio de Janeiro is an incredibly impressive case study about how one of the world’s most crowded, sprawling, complex cities can begin to use technology to organize itself.  Cisco, Siemens, HP, Oracle, Accenture, and others are all mobilizing in an attempt to capitalize on the opportunity to give the modern city a better brain.

Let me be clear.  As a technologist, I am encouraged and inspired by all of these efforts.  I will continue to be a shameless evangelist for the power of technology, from weekend hacks to the world’s most sophisticated software platforms, to contribute to solving the world’s resource problems.  We should not, however, fool ourselves into believing that technology alone is enough.

To survive, the modern city will need more than a better brain.  It will also need a better heart.  I read the story of IBM’s command center on the same day that I coincidentally saw the documentary Waste Land.  The film chronicles the lives of garbage pickers at Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill outside of Rio.  Only 25 kilometers north of the city’s new, digital nerve center, thousands of “pickers” quite literally submerge themselves in garbage removing recyclables by hand.  It is work done in putrid conditions, yet done with a remarkable sense of pride by many featured in the film.  We may be able to use data to optimally route garbage trucks through the streets of Rio, but at the end of the line, we still ask human beings to wade into mountains of trash to sort out plastic.

It is this stark contrast between the emerging, and deservedly warranted,  enthusiasm for smart cities initiatives and the reality of the lives of many living in the squalor and sprawl of the world’s mega cities that demands attention.  The world’s poor vastly outnumber the world’s rich and smarter cities will be cities that are not only smart and data-driven, but truly sustainable for all of their inhabitants, not just those with smart phones.

Much like the sustainability movement encouraged corporations to not only think about their carbon footprint, but also about employee, supplier, and community welfare, so too, the smart cities movement should be based on organizing principles that are holistic in nature.  As we as technologists continue to do our part to enhance the intelligence available to public officials and individual citizens, let us never forget that we are doing this out of a fundamental drive to raise the standard of living for all and to make tomorrow’s mega-cities sustainable, healthy, vibrant ecosystems.

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