Book Review – Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

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Cross-posted from my Amazon review of the book:

Required reading not only for urbanists, but for futurists as well. Anthony Townsend has written the book, now literally and figuratively, on the “21st century’s first new industry – the multi-trillion dollar Smart City industry.”

At the dawn of this new century, three things have come together accelerating us into our urbanized future – for the first time in 2008, more people now live in cities; mobile computers (AKA smartphones) are now pervasive; and the Internet of Things is on its way to being ubiquitous. And instead of us living in remote islands telecommuting in this flat world, it has actually made Cities even more attractive as it provides the connective fiber to support a vibrant, social, digital nervous system.

And everyone who has anything to do with running cities has taken notice – from City Hall, to civic hackers, to urban planners, to academia, entrepreneurs, and of course – giant system integrators.

Going from the Crystal Palace in Victorian London, to the shiny skyscrapers of South Korea’s “smart city from scratch” Songdo, and even touching on Gelernter’s “Mirror Worlds”, Asimov’s psychohistory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, Townsend explores how technology will impact our future cities, extracting lessons from history – past, recent and future (I particularly enjoyed how he explored the failed attempts at building SimCity-like simulations in the 70s and how he compared it to Asimov’s Hari Seldon).

And he just doesn’t explore the contours of this important topic. Derived from these lessons – he finishes the book with his take on how to achieve our urbanized, utopian future.

My takeaway from these guidelines can be described by the epigraph at the beginning of the book – a quote from Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Coriolanus” – “What is the City but the people?” (As it happens, the exact same quote we used when we coined “peopleware” for our reinvent payphones submission – NYCdatawell)

Smart Cities are not made smart by various soon to be obsolete technologies built into its infrastructure, its how its citizens uses these ever-changing technologies to be “human-centered, inclusive and resilient.” Or as we put it in BetaNYC, the hub of NYC’s civic hacking community – to “Connect, Learn, Innovate and Collaborate” – to CLICk together. To me, these digital connections are the axons connecting the City as super organism.

As evidenced by my interpretation, perhaps I read the book through rose-colored glasses as a self-confessed civic hacker and the co-founder of an urban informatics startup, but I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

After reading this book, I’m now reading “Mirror Worlds” (till I read this book, I didn’t know that the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski targeted Gelernter precisely for his predictions) and a biography of Patrick Geddes – a polymath biologist turned social planner.

I’m now also re-reading Barabasi’s “Linked”, Gleick’s “Chaos” and “The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” for how these books describe network theory, complexity, chaos and emergence, and how Data, Information lies at the heart of systems. Not that Townsend mentioned these books, but I couldn’t help but make the connection when he prescribed that when designing Smart Cities, we should Build a Web, not an Operating System.


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