Finding a Smarter Approach to “Smart Cities”

In the pursuit of cutting-edge technological advancements, IBM, a stalwart in the tech industry, has ventured into the realm of ‘smart city’ technology with its ambitious initiative, The Smarter Cities Challenge. This global challenge allocates $50 million in grants for technology and services to 100 selected cities. Among the 24 cities announced as winners in 2011 are diverse metropolises such as Guadalajara, Mexico; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Delhi, India; Antofagasta, Chile; Boulder, Co.; and Glasgow, Scotland. However, as cities vie for these grants, the debate among urban planners and technology corporations about the efficacy of the ‘smart city’ approach to urban development is gaining momentum.


‘Smart city’ has become a ubiquitous term, often encompassing energy-efficient buildings, transit systems, urban infrastructure, and smart grids. Smart grids, employing digital technology for electricity distribution, promise enhanced efficiency in power management. From optimizing home energy consumption to alleviating traffic congestion through real-time information, the applications of smart grid technology are vast. Countries worldwide are capitalizing on these trends, exemplified by South Korea’s $7.18 billion investment in a nationwide smart grid, scheduled for completion by 2030, with a focus on renewable energy sources.

 Kochi is slated to become one of the largest IT business parks in India. Photo by Koshy Koshy.

Despite the fervor surrounding smart city initiatives, skepticism persists. Some argue that an exclusive focus on energy-efficient buildings and grids sidesteps more significant issues. Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, advocates for tried-and-tested solutions like compact, mixed-use communities, bike infrastructure, and transit-oriented development. He emphasizes the importance of embracing simple, effective techniques, challenging the notion that innovative technologies are the panacea for urban development.

Critics, including Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council, question the product-centric nature of current smart city discussions. Benfield challenges the idea that purchasing specific products, like compact fluorescent light bulbs or electric cars, is the key to sustainable urban development. The emphasis on marketable solutions may overshadow less glamorous alternatives such as bus rapid transit or bicycling.

While technology undoubtedly plays a role in enhancing energy efficiency and managing urban systems, some argue for a more holistic approach. Advocates for balanced urban development highlight the need to address human behavior and societal preferences. Dario Hidalgo, director of Research and Practice for EMBARQ, emphasizes the importance of prioritizing people over technology. In the quest for sustainable urban mobility, he suggests focusing on changing behavior to promote efficient modes of transportation, such as walking, cycling, and mass transit.

As the ‘smart cities’ trend unfolds, it becomes clear that a nuanced and balanced perspective is essential. While technology offers valuable tools for energy-efficient solutions, a comprehensive approach that considers human behavior and proven urban planning strategies is crucial for the long-term success of urban development initiatives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *