Smart cities: Reality or Fiction?

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My book “Smart Cities: Reality or Fiction”, has been published on Sept 2018:


Our representatives, administrators, citizens, entrepreneurs, etc. are today beset by this idea of smart cities which compels us to deploy digital networks that should provide us with the solution to all current problems relating to urban development: pollution, clean energies, lives facilitated into security which could be provided by datacenters and their crime and catastrophe-predicting algorithms. Some tech gurus prophesize a new industrial revolution which will be based on the internet (Klaus Schwab) others (Jeremy Rifkin) see the third based on energy. When the topic of smart cities comes up, it is generally in reference to cities where costly investments into digital technologies help improve traffic, manage energy flows and transport, improve management decisions using data processing.

One of the many contradictions and pitfalls of this approach is forgetting that a city constitutes a system of interdependent sub-systems. The IT industry is by far the greediest in terms of energy per unit of production and utilizes rare minerals already in danger of depletion that are unevenly spread out across the planet, which incurs as many geopolitical risks as oil does. Before even reaching peak oil, we are already in the process of depleting one of the existing metals[1] ! As formulated today, the two objectives of the smart city — a supposed intelligence provided by digital technology and the cure for energy waste — are contradictory: its technological substrate consumes more energy than it is supposed to save[2].

The object of this book is to allow the reader to recap on this subject without going into too much depth into the techniques and the underlying scientific fundamentals that are generally well explained in specialist literature and will be abundantly referenced throughout the document. The idea is to present a way of approaching cities that is rooted in the history of urban development and integrates the economic, social political and technological components of cities as a system of living into a system of systems, integrating heterogeneous systems which each have their own logic and their own dynamic, their own associated abilities, and their own inherent challenges. It is intentionally concise, especially considering the scope of the subject. It is aimed at a reader who is not a theorist and even less an expert, but needs a few theoretical pointers to enlighten his or her work. It illustrates these points using concrete experiences.

To the administrator, the representative, the citizen, it proposes the basis to an integrative line of thinking which avoids the pitfall of reducing a set to its sub-set: a city is not just its economy, its culture, traffic, energy, housing… it is the integration of all of these elements. To the entrepreneur, it offers a perspective on their activity that likens it to a rock in an edifice which is bigger than him or her, a great creation that inspires and draws them in and gives them meaning. To the citizen, it offers a path to reconstructing the link between a common good and an individual one which was the basis for the prosperity of medieval towns and cities.

In the first chapterit is important first of all to decode this concept of smart cities and its pitfalls. As with the advent of computing and the internet, the arrival of a new technology is cluttered by a discourse which blends technical elements, lyricism, ideology, and often propaganda, in front of which the client — in this case, the citizen — must be able to discern and not fall victim to what Belarusian essayist Evgueny Morozov[3]called « To save everything, click here ». A technology is a tool serving an end, especially when its power allows us to imagine new ends, And, conversely, we must not hold said technology responsible for the way that some misuse it, least of all its promoters. If one hits their finger with a hammer, it isn’t the hammer’s fault, but rather that person’s own incompetence. Throughout this book, we will be presenting ways for the reader to avoid the pitfalls of « solutionism » which Morozov describes in great detail, including the argument often made by technology promoters that present them as « solutions » to problems which do not exist. We shouldn’t be expecting problems to conform to seller’s solutions, but rather for the solution to solve the buyer’s problem … on condition that the latter be able to present it correctly, which is not necessarily in the seller’s best interest, who in the short term is better served dealing with an ignorant buyer who is likely to fall under the charm of technological lyricism, if not under that of some tech guru – the danger of which we will give a glimpse later on.

The second chapter defines smart cities in regards to the state of the art of new sciences of the city, or an architecture of systems of systems. These systems obey different principles of modeling: the physical systems (transport, energy, trash…) can be modeled using measurable values that obey the laws of physics and human systems rest upon the behaviors of humans which can neither be measured nor predicted by the laws of physics. The designer and manager of a smart city must therefore be able to navigate this multidisciplinarity of approaches and integrate these various systems to make a new art of urbanism similarly to what the keystone did to medieval architecture.

The third chapter presents the design methods for smart cities as a complex system, which forms the new sciences of cities.  We can now identify the laws of urban development, applicable no matter the context, which will allow us to comprehend in each individual case why a city became unintelligent and with which tools it would be possible to redirect it. There is an optimal size for a city beyond which its complexity becomes out of control and it is easier to reason in terms of clusters of medium-sized cities rather than megacities, which is what the Chinese now do. A city does not follow a predefined pattern, but is an emergence : it has traits which only appear through the interaction of sub-systems among one-another. The possibility to « age well in the city » is the result of the interaction between systems such as housing, transport, public health and social life. If the problem of ageing is common to all cities, its solution will rely on integrating rules about how we treat old folk in each culture and civilization.

The fourth part presents a smart city in action. We will present the strategies of urban development used in Singapore (a smart city designed as such from the beginning in order to move a poor nation to the rank of rich nation), Russia (where the strategy of monotowns is the basis for a transitional policy towards an innovative economy of the 2ndindustrial revolution), Copenhagen (a city designed on the human scale), Christchurch (a city rebuilt using the expression of the needs of its inhabitants as a condition for its resilience) Casablanca and others. We will also see a few specific points that a city must address which will allow it to build what its intelligence must become: energy management, waste-management, transport management, the use of digital technology and their dangers (the famous big data !), the possibility of local currencies thanks to cryptocurrencies and which political organization could govern a smart city.

On the backdrop : A new industrial revolution?

The argument of a new industrial revolution is often brought up in justifying the relevance of policies promoting smart cities. If there really is an industrial revolution, it is only really the second phase of the 3rdindustrial revolution based on information technologies which we can trace back to the mid 1970’s when the expansion of computing begins to make data-processing a generic technology in economic progress and the transformation of businesses. In place of the mass production model of the 2ndindustrial revolution, vertical and standardized, a new model appears favoring satellite businesses and smaller production units than the giant factories of the era of mass production. The Internet of Things (which connects not only humans but also objects among one-another and objects to humans) helps create configurations at the organizational level (sometimes referred to as business 4.0[4]), but also cities that are much more agile which could remedy the negative externalities of a mode of development based on fossil fuels, megacities and their consequences: pollution, energy-waste, stress and multiple health risks associated with our current way of living in large cities.

What is the real difference ? Industrial revolutions have constant traits one of which is the lyricism towards the merits of technology which should signal an era of generalized progress. This was the case for the 1stindustrial revolution based on coal, the 2ndbased on electricity and petrol: we now know what ended up happening. there is an industrial revolution upon the appearance of a new technology causes a leap in productivity. This was the case with coal, chemistry, electricity, fossil fuels and then computing. This change affected all of society, business structures, social relations and national strategies, employment qualifications, their hierarchies, salaries… The point that all these mutations have in common is that they occur in cycles, an ascending cycle characterized by growing returns and then a descending cycle characterized by diminishing returns. Economic history since the beginning of the industrial era is a succession of technological cycles each lasting approximately 50 years and including a growth phase and a decline phase[5].

We are currently within the phase of diminishing returns for fossil fuels and the whole production model of the 2ndindustrial revolution. The first wave of the 3rdindustrial revolution based on information technologies has experienced the period of 1.0, with the automation of processes, of 2.0, with transaction computing which interacts with the users, we are now entering the realm of 3.0 — or 4.0 for the more enthusiastic, which integrates objects into transactions: the Internet of Things (IoT). All of the business organization models and beyond the cities is involved.

We are seeing a convergence between the proliferation of a new generation of information technologies and the end of a growth cycle based on fossil fuels. Also, pollution and the cost of waste-management are reaching unsustainable peaks, in particular in the large cities of the world. Pollution is not a new phenomenon and has never prevented polluters from polluting, but what is new is that what is known as « the green economy » is now becoming viable, the industry of renewable growth is now entering a phase of growing returns whilst polluting growth is now in a phase of diminishing returns: industrial development economists, Erik Reinert and John Matthews, look at this and see the beginning of the second technological cycle of the third industrial revolution[6]. What is new is not the sudden appearance of an « environmental conscience » which would make pollution, in particular the pollution of rich countries being exported to poor countries, unsustainable, but that a green economy is an economy of increasing returns: it is now viable to invest in green growth. The Chinese have understood this perfectly: they are transforming the disadvantage of having the most polluted cities by investing in clean energy innovations.

Let us not confuse green economy and renewable energies. What Erik Reinert and John Matthews refer to is the industry of green economy which has the signs of a new technological cycle, ie. a continuous progression on the learning curve and incremental flows of innovations in the industry which considerably decrease the costs. This was the case for computing, where its economy really took off after the first petrol crisis in 1973 and developed according to Moore’s law, meaning a constant increase in processing power and an equivalent decrease in prices. The computing industry from that day forward entered a cycle of increasing returns and diminishing costs. But computing only became affordable from a user standpoint in the mid 1990’s when the phenomenon known as « the Solow computer paradox» disappeared. This paradox states that when the productivity is correlated to investments in the computer industry, this correlation was negative until then.

We are at this point today with renewable energies. Unlike what certain buzzword speeches held by politicians and journalists, these energies have not reached their level of viability. To this day we are still waiting for a technological advance which will help resolve the problem of storing electricity. For the International Energy Agency (IEA), the prediction is a level of adoption of renewables close to 15 % on the horizon for 2040. We are far from the outlandish statements made by the French minister of the environment who stated that in  2014 solar energy would represent 10 % of the world’s electricity, when it in fact only makes up… 0,8 %.

Digital transition, environmental transition, unsustainability of the urban model are all combining. A demographic transition as well with a large growth in urban population still to come, especially in developing countries. The energy transition and the proliferation of this new wave of technology creates opportunities that economic players such as governments may or may not have picked up on in more or less biased ways.

Then early XXIst century sees the entrance of this concept of « smart cities » …


[1]«Quel futur pour les métaux ? Raréfaction des métaux : un nouveau défi pour la société » Philippe Bihouix et Benoît de Guillebon, EDP Sciences, 2010

[2]« La ville intelligente », Olivier Laporte, in Exigences écologiques et transformations de la société, Cahiers français 401, 2017

[3]Morozov, E.  « To Save Everything, Click Here », Trad. Française, 2016

[4] IDC, « La transformation numérique du secteur de l’industrie : l’entreprise 4.0, du rêve à la réalité », 2016.

[5]For a more detailed analysis of the cycle of industrial revolutions see « Play it again, Sam », Claude Rochet in « l’intelligence Iconomique », De Boeck, 2015.

[6]“Renewables, manufacturing and green growth: Energy strategies based on capturing increasing returnsJohn A. Mathews, Erik S. Reinert, Futures 61, 2015

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