Smart Cities: Repeatable Experiments or Research Labs?

By Lauren Burrows.

We recently read a case about a company called Living PlanIT that has proposed to build a greenfield “Smart City” in which it will attempt to reduce waste and increase the use of renewable materials in building, deploy renewable sources of energy, and manage energy, waste and water more efficiently. While this sounds very appealing, as we discussed the case and reviewed the drawings of the concept, I could not help but be reminded of the book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs published this book in 1961 in response to the “urban renewal” movement of the mid-twentieth century, which was a program of land redevelopment in dense urban areas that sought to bulldoze slums in order to create open (and, Jacobs argued, sterile) city spaces. In recent years, the concept of a “smart” city has attracted a great deal of attention and several new cities have been proposed based on this model, including Masdar in Abu Dhabi and New Songdo City in Korea. However, it remains to be seen how we will measure the success of these developments. Will companies choose to locate in these cities? Will people choose to live there? Will we choose to replicate them elsewhere or will they simply prove to be sterile research laboratories?

If these developments do prove to be nothing more than research laboratories, as I suspect they may, how can we predict which “smart” technologies will prove successful in being implemented elsewhere? First, the technology must create clear, measurable and repeatable value that can be captured by a single entity. A technology that creates value for the greater public good or that cannot be easily quantified will have trouble gaining traction. Second, there must be a clear decision maker for the sales process. Technologies that require a number of parties to collaborate will also experience difficulty. One example of a technology that meets these requirements comes from a company called Big Belly Solar, which develops solar-powered, networked trash compactors that save time, fuel and money for municipal governments and other institutions that manage waste removal from public spaces. Big Belly Solar trash compactors add five times the capacity as existing trash cans, reducing the frequency with which entities have to send personnel and/or trucks to collect trash. Furthermore, these trash compactors are solar powered so they do not require grid connection and are networked so that an entity can track which garbage cans are full and only send personnel and/or trucks to garbage cans that are full, further reducing fuel use and time. The savings that this technology generates can be easily measured and tracked and there is a clear entity that derives the benefits and the company can identify who the appropriate decision maker is within that entity. Regardless of whether these experimental “smart cities” lead to a proliferation of other greenfield “smart cities,” I expect that they will generate a number of viable technologies like the Big Belly Solar trash compactor that will be developed and applied elsewhere.

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One thought on “Smart Cities: Repeatable Experiments or Research Labs?

  1. Lauren,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve seen Big Belly trash compactors around campus, but I never realized how much value they delivered to the folks operating them.

    I had a really hard time, though, making the connection between Big Belly and the smart city research labs you discussed upfront. Was Big Belly developed in a smart city? If not, doesn’t that strengthen the case that holistic smart cities aren’t necessary for development?

    The benefit of wholescale “smart city” research labs is that they can showcase the value of systems whose maximum value comes either from implementation on a large scale or from their interaction with other systems. If the primary innovations that emerge from those cities are things like Big Belly, whose benefits can be showcased through small scale or pilot programs, I think smart cities will be a failure.

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