The Smart Cities Revolution Happened, but Cities Were Left Out of Loop

Cities have transformed in profound ways, but more recent changes were the last part of a series of technology waves.

February 19, 2020, 12:00 PM PST

By Camille Fink


Connected City

Tumisu / Pixabay

"For many years we've been promised that the marriage of technology and the city, the 'smart city,' would revolutionize urban life. But for a long time the term has essentially been a buzzword attached to different concepts over three distinct generations, accompanied by generous measures of hype and, lately, some serious questions about who's in the driver's seat," writes Aaron M. Renn.

The first generation focused on developing technology solutions to help cities manage operations for services such as water and transit. The second generation involved the promotion of open data to help cities run more smoothly. These first two generations kept cities in control of technology, but they failed to revolutionize urban areas, says Renn.

The third generation did transform cities, but the private sector deployed its technology in urban environments to provide goods and services to consumers and largely left government out of the process. Companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb often bypassed regulatory structures to change and shape cities.

"In many cases cities are struggling to catch up, sometimes not even knowing what's happening under their noses. This will be a profound challenge not just for governments, but also to our idea of the urban social contract and the division of functions between the public and private sectors," adds Renn.

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