Book review: how tech enables smart cities

Rio de Janiero's control room

Rio de Janiero’s control room

Anthony Townsend has blended the history of city planning and high-tech innovation and what it means for the future in Smart Cities:  Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (2013).

A “smart city” is a city that taps into the power of the internet of things, mobile devices, and big data to improve public services, provide officials with better information, and to realize cost savings.  An example is deploying internet connected sensors to monitor leaks in city water infrastructure and ping officials for repairs.

A challenge to widespread knowledge and adoption of the smart city concept is the amount of salesmanship lurking behind it.  Much of what is written about smart cities originates from press releases by big companies like IBM and Cisco.  They are selling major systems like a control room for Rio de Janeiro to monitor its neighborhoods like NASA would monitor a space launch.

Townsend describes these high-profile smart city examples but also puts them in historical context.  Townsend is generally supportive of smart city innovations, but he is balanced.  He points out flaws, bugs, and risks in certain solutions.  He also explains smaller elements of smart city planning that are more practical for adoption.  Townsend’s context and balance make Smart Cities a valuable resource to cut through the clutter of big businesses’ marketing materials.

Chapter 1 tells a pleasant story in London in 1851 about building the Crystal Palace, an early microcosm of a smart city solution.  The Crystal Palace had precise climate controls through ventilation based on readings from 14 thermostats.  It’s an early model that also serves as a future vision:  an ecosystem where tiny devices trigger appropriate system-wide responses to improve urban living.

Chapter 5, “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” tracks the recent history of app development that has helped connect city dwellers and visitors.  Apps such as Foursquare and Meetup have demonstrated how social apps can thrive when they are tied to specific places like cities.

Chapter 9, “Buggy, Brittle, and Bugged” does a good (and ominous) job of highlighting the risks of large systems that are heavily dependent on technology that is prone to bugs, breaches, and interruptions.

Some of the other chapters aren’t as focused.  Specific topics overlap multiple chapters and previous themes are repeated seemingly at random.  The book would have benefited from better organized chapters with straightforward titles.

Still, there a lots of good nuggets and pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book.  This book can help inspire innovative thinking among city leaders.  It is probably the best book about “smart cities” on the market.  Recommended for community leaders, civic hackers, government technology professionals, and city planners.