There was a time when bells in town squares warned citizens of impending danger. Today, the bells ring again in the form of studies and media reports with warnings about urban problems that plague modern cities and resist solutions. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people move to cities in pursuit of a higher quality of life. This is the story of cities: Citizens with big expectations versus the endurance of big city problems. It is a still-unfolding story with numerous villains: social inequality, traffic congestion, pollution, crime, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, aging infrastructure, public service shortfalls.
What does it take to turn a national bureaucracy into a smart government? It’s not too often a country is given a clean slate from which to start. But for Estonia, a small nation on the Baltic Sea, that is exactly what happened.
A combination of pragmatism and instinct led Estonia to develop an e-government in the 1990s, soon after the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union. The Estonians didn’t pursue a digital future because they thought it would be cool or trendy. They followed their common sense, which told them it would be better to expend their limited resources on servers and networks, rather than on grand buildings and government palaces.
Law enforcement has been using technology to solve crimes for more than a century. Using technology to prevent crimes, however, is a relatively new idea. The movie Minority Report famously depicts a futuristic society in which police officers arrest people before they commit crimes. It’s a deeply disturbing movie with a not-too-subtle message about the danger of relying too heavily on technology.
Nevertheless, a small industry has emerged around the practice of predictive policing. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and other cities have experimented with predictive policing programs. The experiments have been inconclusive and controversial.
What is a smart city and how is it different from our traditional notion of a city? There is no single definition for a smart city. The term itself is a moving target and every city is different.
That said, here are 10 ideas that can help us envision and define the smart city concept: