7 Common Misconceptions About Smart Cities

Jul 24, 2018

1.    Smart cities are expensive

This can be the case depending on how the project is created.   We think of this as a funnel with the connectivity piece being at the bottom and the applications at the top.  The heavy lift is the bottom of the funnel, but it needs to come first so that the applications can be applied.  With the right partners and business models, a lot of these connectivity programs can be turned into profit centers which actually fund the rest of the smart city efforts.


The city of Lawrenceburg Indiana is deploying connectivity in the medium of fiber to every home and business. This will become a profit center for them with a strong ROI.  They are treating connectivity as a utility. They will bank this revenue and put towards future applications that will ride on top of the connectivity. The project moves from an expense and transitions into a profit center.

2.    The idea of applying technology in cities is new

Urbanists for at least a century have argued powerfully for city design to shift its emphasis towards human behavior, and away from a focus on the last technology that transformed them: the car.

That debate about the role of technology in cities, then, is far from new.  As human beings, we have used technology since we first made tools from stones and wood. From there we embarked on a complex process of socio-technological evolution that continues today.

It’s useful sometimes to be reminded of that historical perspective and to remember that the evolution of human beings, human behavior, technology, and cities is a single process.

3.       Smarter Cities are inhuman technologies

Technology itself is truly a utility or tool that can be used for good or bad.   This is truly defined in the policies created to drive smarter cities. I will refer to Jane Jacobs for a look at an excellent description.   In describing to her readers the role of horse-drawn transport in shaping the cities of the Industrial Revolution, she reminded readers that transportation upgrades impact on them was similar to that of the motor car in the 20th Century: horses were physically dangerous to pedestrians; took up a lot of space; created effluent pollution in city streets that we would find unthinkably repellent today; and that their hooves and cobbles were incredibly noisy.

However, her point was that none of this was evidence that either horse-drawn transport or cars destroy cities. On the contrary, they enable cities to grow.  Our challenge is always to bring the benefits and the impact of technology to an acceptable balance on behalf of people and communities.

There is nothing inhuman about technology, but this is not always the case that we design technological services in a way that shows understanding and empathy of the human requirements of their end users. This challenge is one we must face with depth and empathy. Digital privacy and e-commerce are just two examples of technologies that can have such a profound effect on the physical health and vitality of cities that it is imperative we employ them intelligently.

4.    Business, as usual, will deliver the results

Simply stated this, it won’t.  As public and private sector institutions evolved through the previous period of urbanization driven by the Industrial Revolution they achieved mixed results: standards of living rose dramatically, but so unequally that life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of a single city often varies by 10 to 20 years.

Why should we expect more equitable outcomes this time when the challenges facing us are of such enormous magnitude and taking place so quickly?

Many city leaders, businesspeople, activists, and innovators recognize the need for new thinking to align the objectives of the business models that define the majority of the world’s economy with the need for what Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, described as sustainable, equitably distributed growth.

Local authorities define the planning, policy and procurement frameworks that define the criteria that private sector investments in cities must fulfill.


Work to identify candidate design principles for requiring that investments in physical infrastructure in the city not only conform to the city’s spatial strategy; but also contribute to its Smarter City vision, including the deployment of a cohesive civic technology infrastructure. That’s just one example of the many ways public sector authorities are evolving their policies to accommodate new challenges and new technologies.

5.    We don’t have enough people to accomplish the task

One Word, Outsourcing.

I have had conversations about cities who want to move to a 100% connected (Gigabit City) but they feel they would not be able to staff the effort.  I understand that private organizations now exist who will take on this entire initiative and will actually increase efficiency throughout the city and possibly reduce staff.   I think the knowledge of these organization and trust they will fulfill the requirements is building as a success story after success story appears.

6.    Smart cities invade our privacy

Privacy will only be invaded if the city does not provide the proper structure, governance, and policy in place to ensure it does not take place.  The interesting part about this conversation is that it takes place at large in the mobile market today with large organizations such as Google, and Apple dominates the market and gathers tremendous data about users.  Most people still have smartphones in spite of this as the benefit outweighs the loss of privacy. Cities need to do better than Google and Apple et al to ensure that citizens rights are protected.

So the short answer is “It does not have to!”

7.    Smart Cities are just annoying gadgets

A lot of buzz and hype around the smart city can lead to business models and application that is unpractical and flat out wasteful.   I think the shiny new gadgets may be in the market but also have a purpose. As long as the top level goals are being achieved and the measurements to justify expense are generated then the shiny new gadgets have a purpose.