First came the mainstream computer, enabling a privileged few to perform complex calculations. Then the personal computer, a first step toward the democratization of computing power for the masses. Next, the smart phone and tablet, keeping us constantly connected to the cloud and to each other. What’s next? The city itself, according to Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.

The “city as computer” is Townsend’s first premise, and it has been the promise of ubiquitous computing since the phrase was first coined by Mark Weiser in 1988. Indeed, today there are two networked objects connected to the Internet for each of our personal devices. (Think stoplights, traffic cameras, industrial sensors, even refrigerators.) But by 2020 Cisco estimates that some 50 billion objects will be connected to the internet.

The second premise of Smart Cities argues that “the coming century of urbanization is humanity’s last attempt to have our cake and eat it too” — our last chance to benefit from the abundance of the industrial revolution while avoiding the destruction of our planet.

The Industrial Revolution was an urban revolution that caused an unprecedented migration of humanity from the farms of the countryside to the factories of the city. In 1900, just 200 million people lived in cities, about one-eighth of the world’s population. Today 3.5 billion people live in cities, more than half the world’s population. (In the US, Western Europe, and Latin America, that number is closer to 80%.) As Edward Glaeser chronicles in The Triumph of the City, urbanization was an important factor in the unprecedented growth of the global economy throughout the 20th century; with urban density comes the acceleration of innovation while driving down the costs of service delivery and governance.

But Industrialization is also responsible for our greatest 21st century challenge, climate change. If China and India follow the Western model of industrialization, it is doubtful that the planet will hold up. Cities need to use new technologies to increase efficiency and decrease energy consumption: homes and offices that turn off automatically when they detect that your phone is out of range, smart transport to replace individual cars, technologies to reduce water usage, smart electric grids that give incentives to households that produce their own solar energy.

“For the giants of the technology industry,” Townsend writes, “smart cities are fixes for the dumb designs of the last century to prepare them for the challenges of the next, a new industrial revolution to deal with the unintended consequences of the first one. Congestion, global warming, declining health — all can simply be computed away behind the scenes.”


Then there’s the problem of slums — a “planet of slums” to use Mike Davis’ catchy phrase. Cities struggle to keep up with the demand for the benefits they offer their residents. As a result, 62% of city dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa live in slums. In major cities in Latin America, informal slums push up against wealthy, gated communities, yet they are not officially recognized by their city governments. “India needs to build the equivalent of a new Chicago every year to keep up with demand for urban housing,” writes Townsend. “In 2001, China announced plans to build twenty new cities each year through 2020.” Many of those cities have already been constructed, and remain empty.

China ghost city4

Chinese “ghost cities”

Though affordable housing is the most urgent crisis, cities also struggle to keep up with the demand for water, electricity, waste removal, recreational spaces, wireless bandwidth, and other public services. In order to meet the increasing demand, they will need to provide public services more efficiently and more intelligently. They will need to become smart cities.

Rio Control Center

Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Center build by IBM

Townsend’s third premise is that there are two paths to develop the operating system that powers the smart city, one modeled on the proprietary Windows operating system and the other modeled on the open, distributed World Wide Web. Cisco, IBM, Siemens, Living PlanIT and General Electric are all aggressively pushing their own proprietary operating systems for the smart city. For IBM, the Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro is the showcase of the Smarter Cities product that they hope to sell to all cities. For Cisco, it’s Songdo, South Korea. And for Living PlanIT, it’s PlanIT Valley in Portugal.

The alternative to the top-down, corporate version of the smart city, is the bottom-up, grassroots innovation that is exemplified by organizations like Code for America, Tumml, WikiCiudad, OpenPlans, Urban Prototyping, and the hundreds of urban startups that are catalogued on CityMart.

The difference between the top-down and grassroots visions for the smart city is the main narrative tension that accompanies us throughout the rest of the book. Townsend reminds us that this tension that has played out before, when Jane Jacobs took on New York City “master builder” Robert Moses. At the end of World War II, Moses had almost total control over the post-war transformation of New York City. He was responsible for the construction of four major bridges and five major expressways. He reshaped New York around the technology of his day, the automobile. The promise was a more efficient, more comfortable New York where happy families could coast in from the suburbs to their Manhattan offices and back in time for the evening news. But as a result, urban neighborhoods were divided by expressways and hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced to make room for stadiums, highways, and parking lots. Famously, he tried to bulldoze a children’s playground in Central Park to make room for more parking at an upscale restaurant. When Moses proposed the Mid-Manhatten Expressway to cut through Greenwich Village and SoHo in order to link New Jersey with Queens, he met his match in journalist-activist Jane Jacobs whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains influential with urban planners around the world.

Robert Moses was the IBM and Cisco of his day — the master planner with all the ideas to make the city more efficient and productive without considering the needs and wants of the people who lived there. Jane Jacobs advocated for the network approach: let decentralized innovation happen organically to respond to the desires of residents. Top-down versus bottom-up innovation.

Townsend is clearly on the side of the grassroots civic hackers and wary of the “smart-city-in-a-box” pitches by big corporations. But the book never quite articulates why we should favor the grassroots tinkerers. What do they offer us that IBM, Cisco, and others do not?

For the answer we must turn to Richard Sennett’s 1970 book The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. Writing when he was just 27-years-old, Sennett wanted to know why a generation that grew up in the post-war suburbs was once again moving back to the inner-city neighborhoods that their parents had fled for the calm comforts of the suburbs. He wanted to understand the sociological forces that drove the first wave of gentrification in the late 60s.

Unemployed in line for rations

Times Square Breadline

First, we must understand the historical context. Those born in the 1920s and 1930s grew up during the great depression. They experienced scarcity first-hand. Their parents waited in breadlines to fill their hungry stomachs with bread and soup. But after World War II, the American economy experienced its greatest period of economic growth. Some six million African Americans migrated from the rural south to the urban north to work in factories and service jobs. When urban White neighborhoods weren’t able to keep Blacks from moving in, they fled to the suburbs where they sought homogeneity, tranquility, and comfort. You know: two and a half kids, a golden retriever and a white picket fence.


Their children grew up in very different circumstances. While their parents experienced scarcity, they grew up surrounded by abundance. While their parents were subjected to life-changing surprises, their lives were never-ending routines with clear expectations. While their parents fled the chaotic diversity of urban life, they grew up in the monotony of cookie-cutter, planned communities.

Sennett argues that those of us who grew up in suburbs and are now drawn to urban life are seeking serendipity. We are placing ourselves in circumstances that force us to interact with people who are different from us. We seek a different social and psychological development from our parents. We seek disorder as a means to liberate us from control, homogeneity and habit.

This, I believe, is the great difference in outcome between the top-down and bottom-up visions of the smart city. IBM, Cisco, Siemens — they sell city governments greater control and efficiency, but they could care less about serendipity, social inclusion, and participation. Of course, it doesn’t have to be either/or. We need both greater efficiency and greater serendipity in our cities. But we shouldn’t sacrifice the latter to achieve the former.