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The Future of the Future: Being smart about smart cities

This article appears in the issue October 2011, [Vol 20 Issue 9]
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As we continue our exploration of the enterprise of the future, we need to include an enterprise in which over half of the world's population resides—the city. In this article, we take a look at the city of the future, more specifically, the smart city.

The reality of a connected world has made our legacy cities obsolete. The next revolutionary idea that can make or break your company or even your country can come from anywhere, originating in one of the nearly 7 billion minds on the planet. Winning organizations, striving to maintain a continuous cycle of innovation and learning, need to attract the best and brightest of those minds. And the best and brightest tend not to live in isolation. Rather, they prefer to live and work together-hence the emergence of the smart city.

What exactly is a smart city?

There's a lot of confusion over what comprises a smart city. That is because most are focused on different outcomes. For example, knowledge cities focus heavily on education, lifelong learning, personal growth, innovation and intellectual capital development. Digital cities or cyber-cities, driven primarily by investments from large information and communications technology (ICT) vendors such as Cisco, IBM and Siemens, are aimed at enabling every person and every thing to be massively interconnected through a complex array of high-speed networks, servers and data warehouses. Eco-cities, a third variety, focus on environmental sustainability through the widespread adoption of renewable resources. The Masdar project in the United Arab Emirates takes that concept to the point of being totally self-contained in a "carbon-neutral, zero-waste" sense.

In reality, a true smart city must be all three types integrated in a holistic and systemic way. That is where the real and virtual worlds converge, bringing greater efficiency and new opportunities, as well as new challenges. While reality has always been about physical necessity, tangible barriers and restrictions, virtuality brings the potential for greater freedom, immateriality and unlimited possibilities.

A haven for knowledge entrepreneurs

A smart city must be economically viable, which means competing in the global knowledge economy. Achieving and sustaining world-class levels of performance requires a deep-rooted culture of innovating, learning, collaborating and partnering, along with attracting and retaining a diverse population of knowledge workers and entrepreneurs.

The greatest chance for success occurs when a smart city's core economic activity is clustered around a tightly focused domain. In China, for example, Shanghai is gaining recognition as a design center for semiconductor technology, as is Shenzhen for networking equipment. In fact, smart cities span the entire spectrum of industry and commerce, ranging from entertainment to logistics to bioscience to nanotechnology.

The benefits of forming economic clusters have been well documented, and smart cities exhibit many of the ingredients of an ideal cluster community. In addition, a robust ICT infrastructure allows smart cities to aggregate virtually at various levels by connecting with other smart cities, extending their reach from local to regional to national to global.

Barriers to overcome

One major obstacle is a lack of financing. Unfortunately, many investors and institutions are reluctant to commit large sums of money to the development of human capital, despite increasing evidence showing its substantial contribution to economic growth.

A wide array of governmental issues also needs to be addressed. Today's tax, regulatory and organizational structures are woefully outdated and in urgent need of reform. For example, most government incentives are focused on special interest groups, often at the expense of others. Future incentive programs must consider much broader objectives such as creating a highly intelligent and enlightened work force.

Another obstacle is industry's chronic obsession with bandwidth. Again, requirements are often driven by perceived consumer needs that are narrowly focused, such as movies on demand. Little if any attention seems to be given to enabling the flow of knowledge. We should demand more than entertainment from our communications carriers, and encourage them to build a knowledge infrastructure with tools for supporting knowledge-intensive work in a virtual environment.

Social networks are another area ripe for change. The social network population is huge, numbering in the hundreds of millions. Yet, despite the incredible potential of so many minds, little knowledge capital creation is evident, save for perhaps the collection of consumer data to support product research and development, and a few idea-generating websites. We in the knowledge community need to turn social networking on itself, and find innovative ways to unleash the tremendous potential of these networks and transform them into hotbeds for intellectual capital development.

While the promise of smart cities paints an exciting picture of the future, demons lurk in the shadows. First and foremost, cyber-attack is and always will be a major threat. The extension of the realm of cyber-security to include practically any electronic device is already underway. We have seen attacks on every type of system, including manufacturing facilities, processing plants, financial institutions, social networks, smart phones-the list goes on.

Less obvious perils

A more subtle danger is the gradual tendency over time to abdicate control in deference to automation, especially as systems grow more complex and response times become shorter. You don't need to be a hard-core science fiction fan to see the peril in that. The trend toward hyper-automation can ultimately result in a single agent (human or non-human) in control of the "master switch," a frightening prospect for cities inhabited by millions. Organizations like the Singularity Institute provide diverse forums for discussing such issues.

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