Is the Smart City hype over? Is it finally HAPPENING?

I first got interested in Smart Cities and the Internet of Things in the summer of 2015. In November that year I dived in and got very excited by The Things Network.

I have just spotted that this coincided with two peaks on Google Trends for the topic “Smart City”. So much for me being a unique, visionary thought leader (or whatever we are meant to strive for these days)– I was just one more snowflake in a veritable blizzard!

In the last 12 months the Google Trends chart for “Smart City” web searches has been very flat. But since January there has been a noticeable month on month increase in the number of “Smart City” news searches (I’m disregarding the drop-off during the election period).

Does this mean anything I wonder? Are city leaders (or their giant IT partners) beginning to announce Smart City projects – is the hype over …is it finally HAPPENING?

On Twitter @OpenSensors.io recently shared an article by Boyd Cohen in FastCompany that describes the 3 generations of Smart Cities. It’s well worth a read, but the gist of it is that:

  • Generation 1 was technology-led
  • Generation 2 is city-led, and
  • Generation 3 is/will-be citizen co-creation.

One of the aspects of The Things Network that I really like is its bottom-up, grass roots approach to innovating and building IoT solutions. I love that a whole town (hello Reading!) or city can be covered by LoRaWAN for a few thousand pounds. I think it is truly game-changing. We don’t need Vodafone or BT or anyone, we can run it ourselves for free. How liberating is that?!
It has taken me a while to get to the bottom of what upsets me so much about Local Authorities partnering up with the corporate IT giants to design their Smart City. After all, who expects a city to rely on a crowd-sourced, casually managed wireless network for its critical services? Of course cities need to work with the likes of Cisco and Microsoft to provide infrastructure that guarantees the availability of critical services.

But here’s the problem:
The smartest cities – the ones that will grow, the ones that people are eager to live and work in – will be those smart cities that have personality and identity. And you simply cannot get that through top down design by some IT giant.
Not convinced? Let’s do a test:

  1. Hands up if you honestly think Brighton or Bristol would be more vibrant, more exciting places to live and work if they were designed by Dell. Incidentally Dell’s UK base is Bracknell – ’nuff said?
  2. When you are planning your Friday night out– who thinks to themselves “hey, let’s go wild and hang out where the Oracle guys go”?
  3. When you are picking a city break, what do you look for? Is it a tough call between one that has the most predictable shopping mall, and another that has the finest automated taxi queues? Or do you go for something a bit more …you know, human?

I have written previously about my fear of cookie-cutter smart cities. It is why when I talk to people about starting a Things Network community I emphasize the need to build a community not a club.

City leaders – if you want your city to prosper, then you NEED the communities you serve to be engaged in the Smart City agenda. Look closer to home, there might be a Things Network or similar Internet of Things community already happening. If not you can easily start one or find another way to involve local people in your Smart City plans. There are almost certainly a few startups and small businesses in your city who would be very excited to work with you and your communities, and they’d be happy to work with your big IT partners too.

You need to be this Generation 3 kind of Smart City that FastCompany talks about. And you need to meet the needs of ALL your residents and workers. This means not just listening to the well paid white male consultants your IT partners put in front of you (but please listen to this one, obvs!)

I love all the IoT technology that will help remove friction in city living, but it is the unique mix of communities and businesses – the people – who will breathe life and personality into any city or town. They, and the people looking to relocate to a better city are the ultimate judges on how successful, how smart your city really is.