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The Future of the Future: Putting the smarts into smart cities

This article appears in the issue February 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 2]


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The city is unlike any other institution on earth. There you'll find on full display "the good, the bad and the ugly" of what makes us humans tick.

In our previous article on smart cities (in the October 2011 issue of KMWorld), we discussed the key elements that make those mega-enterprises one of our great hopes for the future, along with the dangers and risks. In essence, the difference between success and failure boils down to basic socio-economics: achieving both economic prosperity and societal wellbeing in a global knowledge economy.

One cannot exist without the other. When social cohesion is strong, cities tend to thrive, even after undergoing extreme stress (think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, New York or the siege of Leningrad). Cities whose inhabitants are bound together with a common purpose and sense of community have proven to be extremely resilient.

On the other hand, the breakdown of social cohesion brings chaos, gang violence and property destruction, along with economic collapse. The law of the jungle-survival of the fittest-takes over. A simple example can be seen in cities like Cairo and Damascus, in which tourism plays a key role. The recent civil disorder in those cities has all but slammed the door on tourism, further hurting their economies at a time when financial resources are needed the most.

Where does knowledge fit in?

Like many of our large institutions, cities were constructed based on industrial-age assumptions. Urban architecture was focused on the physical movement of goods and the people who made and used those goods. Physical proximity had primacy. Knowledge took a back seat.

In many ways, today's legacy cities resemble the products of that era. Compare the Model T with our new hybrid cars. The total extent of embedded intelligence within the Model T was probably limited to the gearbox and the thermostat, both of which were static controllers. In today's hybrids, more than 40 percent of the cost is now attributed to the processors, software and digital displays that keep the whole thing running while squeezing out every last drop of fuel efficiency possible.

The fact that you can no longer lift the hood of your car and smack the voltage regulator with a hammer, or fiddle with the distributor cap, tells you something. The main component is not the engine or transmission-it's the vehicle's brain and nervous system, with its many processors and millions of lines of code. That's why you have to plug into a diagnostic console to find out why your engine is stalling. More importantly, today's automobile has a socio-economic purpose: safe, reliable transportation, fuel efficiency and contributing to a clean environment.

The city of the future works in much the same way. As we plan and design our cities, we need to focus on the brain and central nervous system, as well as the socio-economic value that system creates and delivers. That is the embodiment of every aspect of the enterprise of the future we've been exploring for the past several years.

The intelligent cyber-city

Does your city have an enterprise architecture? How is the brain of your city designed? An open, flexible and scalable architecture is the foundation for planning, designing and building a smart city. The risk that comes from ad hoc, fragmented approaches is unacceptable in today's complex, fast-changing environment.

A centralized nucleus doesn't work either. Intelligence needs to be distributed and diversified, all while maintaining integrity and transparency, balanced with privacy, security and intellectual property protection-not an easy set of goals to achieve. Resilience also must become standard, given the growing number of ways that a knowledge-based economy can be disrupted for long periods of time.

Such a technology infrastructure brings the ability to transform governance into a more effective, participatory decision-making process directly involving the citizens being impacted. This has the potential for significantly improving the traditional binary model of voting "yea" or "nay" on hundreds or thousands of pages of legislation, which the elected representatives may not have even read or fully understood. With the rapid expansion of social networks comes the capacity for large-scale participative democracy.

Creation of socio-economic value

While more people are signing on to social networks, they unfortunately seem to be attracted by the almost daily appearance of "flash mob" tweets, celebrity video bloopers and the like. Those can certainly be entertaining or captivating at times, perhaps even landing a 30-second snippet on the evening news. But like that old Model T, most tweets and sound bites contain almost zero intelligence.

The tremendous opportunity here is to transform social networks into knowledge networks in which shallow tweets have near infinite "reach-back" to the underlying data and knowledge, including the explanations and reasoning behind them (see The Future of the Future article on the "World Wide Why," KMWorld, March 2011 issue). By using social networks with hundreds of millions and soon billions of minds, we can come up with innovative solutions that will benefit society and make disruptive episodes like the "Occupy" movements and breakdowns of social order less likely.

On the economic side, obtaining the financial resources to build and grow a smart city presents a formidable challenge. The good news is that smart cities are becoming a magnet for a new type of asset class known as impact investing. Impact investment funds are aimed at promoting societal good through the creation of sustainable, life-enhancing opportunities, in addition to achieving traditional financial goals such as internal rate of return (IRR).

Several billion dollars of capital are already being set aside for impact investing, including $1 billion from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and $875 million funded in part by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Similar funds are being formed in Europe and across the globe.

Finally, in order to maximize return, investment in smart cities must be closely aligned with the overall political strategy, in tight coordination with infrastructure planning, work force development, tax incentives, quality of life, etc. That cannot occur unless traditional organizational barriers are removed, and knowledge is allowed to flow quickly and easily.

Actions to take

Each of us can take steps to increase the amount of intelligence in our social network communications. Tweeting about mundane activities like walking the dog helped to bring about the social networking revolution. Now we need to take it to the next level and start a new revolution in creating, sharing and applying knowledge, resulting in greater social cohesion and increased resilience. We can call it the "Occupy Your Mind" movement.

Next, every one of us should think of ourselves as social knowledge entrepreneurs. Let's find ways to use our global mastermind to develop innovative business models aimed at creating increased prosperity for our communities, cities and nations.

Finally, we need to develop a holistic rating system for "smartness." There are many examples of smart cities throughout the world (Songdo, Masdar, etc.). Each has its own set of positive attributes, but none comes close to tying it all together. Let's aim toward creating cities of the future that combine the best attributes in ways that produce more of the good, and less of the bad and the ugly. 


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