Raising and lowering the smart cities bar

As many readers of these blogs know, I’ve spent years griping about the term “digital transformation.” Despite my love for urban transformation, the term “smart cities” has bugged me at times as well.

Don’t get me wrong — this has nothing to do with a sincere belief that cities are getting smarter…they clearly are. I just worry that the term has become so ubiquitous that it has become the urban equivalent of the term “smart phone” in the minuscule universe of flip phones.  It’s the same with my sensitivity to the hype for digital (fill in the blank). I feel it’s almost embarrassing admitting to clients or customers that an enterprise is finally transforming its business to digital in 2017.

So, my sense is that most cities in developed countries are already smart (and I dare say digital) to some degree or another. Some of the smartness is worthy of promotion to the population; another would be the equivalent of saying to phone owners that they can now do something revolutionary like take a picture on their device.

The point is, there is an expectation among citizens about transformation that’s barely even considered smart. It’s like saying texting is considered smart among millennials who have never lived in a world without it. On the other hand, from a generational aspect, WiFi in the subway  may be absolutely revolutionary to a 68-year-old digital immigrant while being a yawner to a digital native.

Frustration for the haves and have-nots

There are some other interesting aspects come into play in regard to how citizens relate to smartness. For example, in some major cities there are large portions of the population that have little to no digital access. Whereas many wired citizens have very high expectations for smart services, there are others who paradoxically experience digital frustration because of an inability to participate in the revolution.

One major city CTO told me that in some cases it has become impossible to file critical forms with the city without a computer or smart phone. So, one can only imagine the frustration of the digitally disenfranchised not even being able to do required tasks the “old fashioned way.”

In the effort to have technology do more of the heavy lifting in cities, a new skill set will require raising the safety net for the digital have-nots that widens rapidly as urban technology life cycles surpass the timeframes in Moore’s Law.

Needless to say, the smart city technology bar cannot be kept low for the masses simply to accommodate those who are unable to, or decline to, participate in the digital revolution. But again, there must be an awareness that as the citizen-facing technology gets more sophisticated and more tightly embedded into the day-to-day life of the taxpayer, the greater the possibility that larger numbers will be left behind.

This poses some interesting challenges for the urban digital disruptor. This will embody itself in the need for “layers” of technology innovation that serve the high expectations bar of those operate with digital technology as second natural language. At the same time, there is the need to avoid paralysis of the various lower degrees of tech sophistication and, more important, make them feel they’re part of the revolution regardless.

This won’t be an issue with more ambient smart city technologies like smart lighting or IoT sensors that require little engagement, but it will continue to be an issue where human interaction is still required.


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