I wrote this column on the plane that took me from Barcelona to Las Vegas, the first stop on my world tour of smart cities – or, to be more specific, my tour of the efforts undertaken by some cities to better use information and communication technologies to improve our lives. I chose cities that are at different stages of development in this field, in different countries.
We all think we know what goes on in Las Vegas and what is afoot there every day. Casinos, good, cheap food and never-ending shows in a tacky yet sparkling environment. The city is also in the midst of complete transformation thanks to an entrepreneur who made his fortune selling shoes online. Tony Hsieh (Zappos.com) set out to transform the declining city center into a space for innovation and start-ups.
I wonder how far this initiative by one individual (not an institution) who has resources and seems to pay close attention to his surrounding community can go.
After a stop in Silicon Valley for a conference on innovative ecosystems, I will go to the South Korean city of Songdo, which was built from scratch south of Seoul on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea.
An American architecture firm (Gale International) is leading the project in agreement with the Korean government and in partnership with a local company, Posco. It’s a whole program. It will be interesting in this case to see how far one can go when building a city from scratch. Can you inject life into it? At what price? These are some of the questions I will try to answer.
From there I will head to Singapore, the city-state of 5.4 million inhabitants which has long understood that the massive and systematic use of ICTs was one, if not the only one, of the most obvious solutions for small fish trying to survive in a world of giants (China, India and Indonesia). I have no doubts about the implementation of this strategy, but the question is to know how far resorting to technologies, multiplying connections, attracting innovators from the regions and installing a sophisticated infrastructure can continue to push Singapore forward. One must also wonder if the long-standing political control of the country will now operate through ICTs, and to what degree.
For a complete change of scenery, the next step will be Hyderabad, India’s sixth biggest city (7.75 million inhabitants according to Wikipedia), which is much more populated than Singapore. It is a historic city that played an important role in the development of ICTs for this Asian giant. After spending too little time there during my previous world tour of innovation, I wonder to what extent technologies can truly and profoundly transform such a complex and massive environment. In a way, the question here is reversed from the one for cities built from scratch like Songdo but also Masdar, the last step of this journey.
Masdar is a completely new city being created in the Abu Dhabi desert with the promise of zero-impact energy consumption and waste emission. This other case will help measure the potential and the limits of smart cities built from scratch, which Adam Greenfield criticizes in “Against the smart city”.
This first one-month journey is just the beginning of a project I am calling “Citynnovation.” Spread over a little more than a year, it aims to answer a simple question: to what extent and under what conditions can information and communication technologies help improve the living conditions in cities…where more than half of humanity now lives?