Does It Matter That We Have No Idea What a Smart City Is?

Carl Weinschenk

In most cases, providing precise definitions of a new approach is vital from the technical and marketing points of view. In the case of smart cities, however, it may not be quite as important.

The reason is that the idea is so broad that there will be a general acceptance that “smart city” is a catch-all expression that refers more to an exciting array of tools than a specific qualifying approach or set of services.

Regardless, companies such as Gartner are in business to judge the size of markets, so they are assessing smart cities as a single big entity. The firm says that next year, smart cities will use 1.6 billion connected devices, which is a 39 percent jump over 2015. In 2018, the figure will swell to 3.3 billion.

The broadness of the category – and, thus, the haziness of minutely defining it – is evident in the sub-categories Gartner sees. It says the leading user next year will be smart buildings: 518.1 million IoT devices will be in the field in 2016, a big jump over the 377.3 million deployed this year. Smart buildings will be followed by businesses, which will increase investment in commercial security cameras, webcams and indoor LEDs, according to Datamation. Home uses also will grow. The point is that those are very divergent tasks. The only real tie that binds them is the amorphous term “smart city.”


That should be noted – but not used to disqualify the trends Gartner is trying to track.

Dallas is one setting that wants to be on the smart city bandwagon. The Dallas News says that The Dallas Innovation Alliance, a public/private partnership that includes AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, the city of Dallas and others, was recently created. It will work in the downtown section of called the West End. It’s not surprising that it is a wide-ranging endeavor:

The Dallas group is focusing on adding smart technologies in three areas: infrastructure, mobility and connected living. Efforts could include sensors to capture real-time energy and water use; a green/solar roof initiative; smart parking solutions; improving bike lanes; and adding kiosks with data access.

Hopefully, at least from the standpoint of proponents, the lack of a clear definition won’t lead to inertia and bog things down. But it may. The tone of this long quote – from a Huffington Post piece by Reinier de Graaf, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and head of think-tank AMO – suggests that perhaps my idea that an exact definition doesn’t matter because efforts will be so specific to local conditions may not be so:

What exactly is the smart city? Despite attending many similar conferences, I had never received a clear answer. For a long time, I thought it was me, that I was the only ignorant person in the room. But the more conferences I visited, the more the possibility dawned on me that perhaps I was not alone, that there were others like me; that this is a subject of which nobody has a clear notion. Maybe that is the whole point. Perhaps the smart city is such a perfect subject precisely because it allows everybody to speak in the absence of knowledge, or rather, to display their own specific knowledge, without having to go through the trouble of checking the relevance. Maybe the smart city is the ultimate free for all - a 'jam session' of otherwise incompatible minds.

No doubt a lot of good can come from smart grid projects, whether they are part of a fleshed-out bigger picture vision or not. For instance, Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen is offering a $50 million prize in a smart city-focused contest to find ways of easing traffic in midsized cities. Few people living in those cities would argue that that isn’t a good idea.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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