Civic Hackers, and the Quest for the New Smart City Utopia

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* Book: SMART CITIES. Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. Anthony M. Townsend. Norton, 2013



Anthony Townsend:

(from the preface)

"The old city of concrete, glass, and steel now conceals a vast underworld of computers and software. Linked up via the Internet, these devices are being stitched together into a nervous system that supports the daily lives of billions in a world of huge and growing cities. Invisibly, they react to us, rearranging the material world in a flurry of communiques. They dispatch packages, elevators, and ambulances. Yet, as hectic as this world of automation is becoming, it has a Zen-like quality too. There's a strange new order. Everything from traffic to text messages seems to flow more smoothly, more effortlessly, more in control.

That machines now run the world on our behalf is not just a technological revolution. It is a historic shift in how we build and manage cities. Not since the laying of water mains, sewage pipes, subway tracks, telephone lines, and electrical cables over a century ago have we installed such a vast and versatile new infrastructure for controlling the physical world.

This digital upgrade to our built legacy is giving rise to a new kind of city—a "smart" city. Smart cities are places where information technology is wielded to address problems old and new. In the past, buildings and infrastructure shunted the flow of people and goods in rigid, predetermined ways. But smart cities can adapt on the fly, by pulling readings from vast arrays of sensors, feeding that data into software that can see the big picture, and taking action. They optimize heating and cooling in buildings, balance the flow of electricity through the power grid, and keep transportation networks moving.

Sometimes, these interventions on our behalf will go unnoticed by humans, behind the scenes within the wires and walls of the city. But at other times, they'll get right in our face, to help us solve our shared problems by urging each of us to make choices for the greater good of all. An alert might ask us to pull off the expressway to avert a jam, or turn down the air conditioner to avoid a blackout. All the while, they will maintain a vigilant watch over our health and safety, scanning for miscreants and microbes alike.

But the real killer app for smart cities' new technologies is the survival of our species. The corning century of urbanization is humanity's last attempt to have our cake and eat it too, to double down on industrialization, by redesigning the operating system of the last century to cope with the challenges of the coming one. That's why mayors across the globe are teaming up with the giants of the technology industry.

These companies—IBM, Cisco, Siemens, among others—have crafted a seductive pitch. The same technology that fueled the expansion of global business over the last quarter-century can compute away local problems, they say. If we only let them reprogram our cities, they can make traffic a thing of the past. Let them replumb our infrastructure and they will efficiently convey water and power to our fingertips. Resource shortages and climate change don't have to mean cutting back. Smart cities can simply use technology to do more with less, and tame and green the chaos of booming cities.

Time will be the judge of these audacious promises. But you don't have to take it sitting down. Because this isn't the industrial revolution, it's the information revolution. You are no longer just a cog in a vast machine. You are part of the mind of the smart city itself. And that gives you power to shape the future.


We are witnessing the birth of a new civic movement, as the sz-nartphone becomes a platform for reinventing cities from the bottom up. Every day, all across the globe, people are solving local problems using this increasingly cheap consumer technology. They are creating new apps that help us find our friends, find our way, get things done, or just have fun. And smartphones are just the start— open government data, open-source hardware, and free networks are powering designs for cities of the future that are far smarter than any industry mainframe. And so, just as corporate engineers fan out to redesign the innards of the world's great cities, they're finding a grassroots transformation already at work. People are building smart cities much as we built the Web—one site, one app, and one click at a time. "


Introduction Urbanization and Ubiquity 1

1 The $100 Billion Jackpot 19

2 Cybernetics Redux 57

3 Cities of Tomorrow 93

4 The Open-Source Metropolis 115

5 Tinkering Toward Utopia 142

6 Have Nots 168

7 Reinventing City Hall 194

8 A Planet of Civic Laboratories 226

9 Buggy, Brittle, and Bugged 252

10 A New Civics for a Smart Century