These days, every major IT company is looking for its slice of the smart city pie. The likes of IBM, Cisco and even GE have rolled-out programs in that direction, which is understandable, given the projection that annual spending on smart city technology will reach $16b by 2020. But despite the best intentions these companies may have, Usman Haque argues we are going in the wrong direction. Connecting systems and bridging data will not by itself solve tough issues. “The truth is, all of these ‘smart city’ initiatives actually only reflect the most basic functionalities of the Internet of Things (IoT)”. The real problem, according to Haque, is that most of these initiatives are looking for a one-size fits all, top-down strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being and economic development. In short, their strategies focus on the city as a single entity, rather than the people—citizens—that bring it to life. It should be going the other way: bottom-up and organic. “The ‘smartness’ of smart cities will not be driven by orders coming from the unseen central government computers of science fiction, dictating the population's actions from afar or defined by one application, or central organising body, that sets pre-programmed limits”. Because it is reconfigured every day, a smart city should help us increase serendipitous connections and should actively and consciously enable us to contribute to data-making and make far better use of data that's already around us. “Smartness is also about creating a flexible system that can dynamically adjust to changes, one that responds to unpredictable phenomena in a way that is not planned, and that harnesses the creative capacity of inhabitants”.
Of course, corporations and governments have a major role to play in the smart city, in terms of mandating compliance with common frameworks, open standards, structured-data formats, etc. And there are some things that can only be accomplished at that scale, particularly the kind of heavy infrastructural investments that underwrite robust, equal, society-wide access to connectivity. However, empowering citizens to find and build their own solutions dynamically-- like citizen-led air quality monitoring systems (such as the Air Quality Egg)--remains the best approach for the full potential of smart cities to be realised.