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Smart Cities, Smart People, Smart Future

March 6, 2014


Alex Steffen, an author and futurist who writes a lot about smart cities and sustainability, insists that for most people the future will see them living in an environment that is urban, high tech, and, hopefully, green. [“The 21st Century Economy Will Be Urban, High Tech, and Green,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 22 April 2013] If he is correct (and most trends support his predictions — except for the “green” part), then we need to put a lot more thinking into how we can make our urban environments much more livable. Technology will certainly help, but smart cities start with smart people not smart technologies. According to Kaid Benfield, smart people need to get involved in what he calls “The power of ‘creative placemaking’.” [Switchboard, 7 January 2013] I like the term “creative placemaking” because it is a call for positive action. Although it may sound like creative placemaking involves the creation of greenfield cities, it’s really about making established cities better places to live. We’re going to need a lot of attention in that area in the years ahead; and, according to Steffen, we need to act much quicker than most people believe.


During an interview with Steffen, Aaron Britt noted that Steffen is an environmentalist and “a massive proponent of cities,” and asked him, “If I want a truly green and more natural lifestyle shouldn’t I move back to the land?” Steffen’s response was profound. He said, “Twentieth century environmentalism was about behavior, but the key to 21st-century sustainability must be found in systems. Everything we do is made possible by larger systems, and it is at the level of those systems that we generally have the biggest negative impacts, so that’s where we need to innovate.” [“Alex Steffen on Cities,” Dwell, 6 February 2013] In other words, cities hold to the key to the future because they contain the most people and are home to the largest systems. Steffen isn’t arguing that behavior no longer matters — it obviously does — he is simply pointing out that systems connect people and things and coordinated activities almost always have a more significant impact that individual activities.


Dan Hill also believes this and asks, “So, how do we orient our cities as regards The Network? And how might this then address the core issues of our age?” [“,” City of Sound, 1 February 2013] He states that “the goal is entirely constructive” and to achieve it, we must “shift the debate in a more meaningful direction, oriented towards the raison d’etre of our cities: citizens, and the way that they can create urban culture with technology.” Hill, like Benfield, sees grassroots participation as critical to the effort; but, he also understands that grassroots efforts can’t really affect networks the way that governments and commercial enterprises can. He calls the commercial enterprises an “Urban Intelligence Industrial Complex (led by IBM, Cisco, General Electric, Siemens, Philips et al).” As you can tell, Hill isn’t a big fan of these large corporations. Regardless, they are a necessary piece of the urban puzzle and without them the picture wouldn’t be complete. Steffen notes that by their very nature, cities contain a number of traits that make them both the problem and the answer. He told Britt, “Cities can do three things phenomenally well: They can put us closer together with the things we want to do; they can provide affordable opportunities to build more sustainable systems; and they can create cultures of sustainable innovation.” Concerning the subject of proximity, Steffen remarked:

“Cities bring things closer together, and proximity lets us take on the problem of the car. If we’re honest about assigning responsibility for the emissions caused by our consumption, cars and auto-dependent lives show themselves to be the biggest cause of North Americans’ (and Australians’) oversized carbon footprints. We know that by combining more compact development with more walkable streets and investments in transit, cities can shift the whole system of transportation to one with much lower emissions. Even if you like having a car, if you live in a much more walkable, dense city, your choices will change and your emissions will likely drop.”

Even the automobile industry has jumped on board the urban transportation bandwagon and has tried to reimagine no-emission vehicles for city use. Mass transit, however, remains the best answer since it moves more people with less waste. The transportation system that is often overlooked in discussions is the logistics system. People in urban areas need, food, clothing, and consumer packaged goods just like everyone else; and, all of those things need to be delivered safely and efficiently into the heart of the city. Making cities more walkable often exacerbates the logistics challenge (see my post entitled “The Future of Urban Transportation: Moving Goods“). On the subject of urban systems, Steffen told Britt:

“Urban systems are inherently more efficient than systems in sprawling suburbs. It’s not hard to figure out why: If one two-mile stretch of road serves 5,000 residents in a city, but only 200 houses in a suburb, the urban road has a much lower impact per person than the suburban road. The same is true for water pipes, power grids, sewer systems, emergency services, and so on. All these things also cost much more to deliver in sprawling suburbs, which makes it very difficult to upgrade to better-performing alternatives. Cities, though, have the tax base and number of residents to make building newer, better infrastructure (from transit to smart grids to green streets) affordable.”

Steffen makes it sound like cities are flush with cash, but they’re not — just ask Detroit. It will take more than taxes to “upgrade to better-performing alternatives.” Corporations, including those that are part of Hill’s Urban Intelligence Industrial Complex, are going to have to get involved in public/private partnerships if alternatives are going to be implemented. On subject of smart city innovation, Steffen told Britt:

“We face an interconnected set of crises involving climate change, global poverty alleviation and urbanization, energy availability, resource depletion and ecosystem collapses. To make it through this planetary crisis, we need fundamental changes in the systems we depend on to provide prosperity. All that change, though, is not just a challenge, it’s a giant opportunity. Regions that respond boldly enough will be more rugged in the face of climate and economic disruptions, but also thrive as their capacities for reinvention create zero-carbon skills, solutions and industries. With billions of people moving to (or being born in) cities over the next 40 years — all of them facing the same interlocking crises — the market for sustainable prosperity is almost unfathomably huge.”

Urban employment, which already is a problem, will only get worse unless cities embrace new industries that can flourish in cities. I agree with Steffen that smart cities represent our greatest hope for the future; but, only if they embrace the new ideas that are emerging in response to the crises discussed by Steffen. He believes cities will rise to the challenge and, as a result, “we’re entering a city-building boom, both in the U.S. and internationally.” Construction will provide some employment, but it will be the sustainable industries (i.e., those that endure) that will provide the greatest long-term employment opportunities. “In this climate-friendly, new urban boom,” Steffen writes, “there’s money to be made. Lots of money. Entire business categories are coming into being. Who took seriously car- and ride-sharing services as profitable businesses ten years ago? Who thought fifteen years ago that urban multifamily would be the next boom housing market? Who twenty years ago believed that green building would become not a good deed but an industry standard? The changing reality of cities in the age of climate consequences is throwing aside whole systems we’ve taken for granted and in their places are springing up new opportunities.” He told Britt:

“The one thing the solutions we need all have in common is urbanism. All of the systems causing this crisis (like energy, agriculture, and manufacturing) are already either urban systems, or exist increasingly to feed urban systems. The best way to find replacement models for what’s broken is by understanding the new possibilities of cities, and you simply can’t understand those now if you don’t live in a city. And when cities become hotbeds of thinking about innovations, they tend to produce non-linear results: all those folks rubbing elbows come up with things they never would have on their own. In fact, I think there’s an opportunity for a few cities to seize leadership in sustainable urbanism and to create whole new business models on a scale we find difficult to grasp, now.”

What Steffen and others are proposing (i.e., the transformation of urban environments) won’t be easy or cheap — just necessary. That transformation must begin with a vision that can be embraced by all stakeholders (private, public, and commercial) and pursued with both perseverance and creativity. Tim Raynor believes we are entering an age of social enlightenment during which “successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships.” [“Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment,” Philosophy for Change, 31 October 2012] I agree with Raynor. It’s the reason that today’s urban planners stress culture and livability over efficiency. Raynor concludes, “Smart data is the key to turning the social change enlightenment into a social change revolution.” That’s why all stakeholders, including large corporations, need to be involved.

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