The difference between data and wisdom: Smart cities have a lot to learn
While cities like São Paulo, Brazil, are expanding the technology available to city leaders, good governance remains pivotal to creating a truly 'smart' city. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brazil.

While cities like São Paulo, Brazil, are expanding the technology available to city leaders, good governance remains pivotal to creating a truly ‘smart’ city. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brazil.

This article reports on presentations made by Philip Yang, President, URBEM (Urbanism and Urban Studies Institute for the city of Sao Paulo), Jianming Cai, Professor at the Institute of Geographic Sciences & Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Alexandros Washburn Founding Director, Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence (CRUX) at Stevens Institute of Technology at a panel organized by the Wilson Center.

We live in a world where cars can fold into themselves and may soon be levitating. However, this rapid pace of innovation in the automotive sector is not yet crossing over to cities at large. Cities are traditionally slow and resistant to change. They are complex, interconnected systems, whereas technology is best at solving discrete problems. While smart cities might be covered in sensors that give city leaders a lot of data, ultimately it is people that make decisions, and ultimately ineffective governance structures and human judgment that needs to improve.

Or so says Philip Yang, the President of the Urbanism and Urban Studies Institute (URBEM) in São Paulo, Brazil, as he explores the myriad factors making it increasingly difficult to confront the challenges facing today’s cities. Cities are growing ever larger and more spread out, changing faster than regulation can handle, and are increasingly unequal. But the picture Yang, together with his colleagues Prof. Jianming Cai, and Alexandros Washburn described at a recent panel on the “Dawn of the Smart City” is one that is urgent but not unhopeful.

The key to building wisdom into these so-called smart cities entails tackling problems at scale, asking tough questions about the services cities need to provide residents, and concentrating on fixing the difficult, human dimension of metropolises.

Bigger, wider, faster, further apart: Defining the problem

As cities grow, challenges that were once swept under the rug are becoming magnified. With the global urban population hitting 6 people billion by 2050, and 10 billion by 2100, this means that changing the way we build cities will become that much harder. Poor planning practices will become more widespread and more engrained into urban development as more land will be urbanized in the first three decades of the 21st century that in all of mankind’s past.

Economic trends are also shifting faster than cities can plan for, as cities are rapidly de-industrializing and re-industrializing faster than zoning codes are updated. This means cities are being built that don’t meet the need of their residents. Added to this, cities are aggregation mechanisms: they aggregate wealth as well as poverty, which means that it is harder than ever for city leaders to work together towards solutions as people’s interests move further apart.

Problems and solutions at scale

All of these different challenges can only be solved if planners define these problems at the right scale. Today’s cities influence the region around them, meaning that policy divides between city and suburb are likely to have far-reaching impacts. As Yang noted, one municipality within São Paulo houses 10% of Brazil’s GDP. Changes things like transport options, urban development densities, and carbon emissions policies will all have repercussions that will ripple throughout the entire region.

As Yang delved into how to define the problems facing cities, his colleague Prof. Jianming Cai, from the Institute of Geographic Sciences & Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR), spoke about the necessity of knowing the solution. This means consciously defining that a city should be economically productive – both for its inhabitants and the nation – inclusive, well-governed, and healthy for inhabitants and the planet. Without defining success, achieving it is impossible.

Finally, Alexandros Washburn from the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence (CRUX), highlighted that a successful smart city will owe far more of its success to good governance than to new gadgetry. This good governance will not focus on putting lots of sensors on roads or lampposts, but on using technology to integrate public participation into decision making in ways that in the past would have been prohibitively slow.

This participant-based decision process will be increasingly helpful for cities to successfully react to escalating challenges, from the size of parks and buildings to the size of tsunamis and tornados. In such crisis situations – growing more common with the rise of extreme weather due to climate change – it is great to have residents with phones that can track wind speed. It is even better to have an online portal to share this information. But really, in these situations, the smartest cities will have leaders with a solid plan that they can successfully execute to get their residents to safety.

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