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Guest Thinkers

Getting Smart on Smart Cities

Over half the world’s population lives in cities, with millions more pouring in every year. Countries like China, India and South Korea are investing heavily in new so-called “smart cities” which are being outfitted with pervasive networks. Cities like Songdo, Lavasa and PlanetIT herald a new era of cities, in which information networks make your life seamless and productive. But how are smart cities relevant to you today? You should approach this question by thinking along three dimensions: first, do you want to move to a smart city? Second, is there a business opportunity for you to provide products and services to smart cities? And third, are you comfortable with the lack of privacy that is part and parcel of a smart city? 

Let’s consider these one by one:

(1) Should you move to a smart city? If you are a wealthy businessman, or you want to expand your business to another region or situate your company in a city catered to a particular industry, then yes you should. However, beware that there are always cultural and legal constraints that you need to be aware of when moving to other countries. It is very difficult in Songdo, for instance, for foreigners to own real estate because of Korean law.

(ii) Is there a business opportunity for you in smart cities? Absolutely. Today, a lot of the networks that are being laid down are ‘closed networks’. For instance, if you wanted to add an application to the Telepresence monitor from Cisco, you cant do that, but there’s a good chance that IBM, HP, and Cisco, all major players in smart networks, will copy Apple in making their networks semi-closed so that applications can be developed for their products. There is a huge opportunity for devices that can communicate with the networks, like scales that can send your weight to your doctor everyday. Also, services like programming, databases, and design will be needed as cities envelope all parts of a person’s activities into their centralized systems. Smart cities will need cool shopping avatars, for instance, that will guide citizens through at the mall, matching preferences with current sales or new items at different shops.  

(iii) Finally, you should seriously think about whether you’re comfortable with the fact that your life is pretty much an open book in a smart city. If you are cheating on your wife with your colleague in a hotel, the city street cameras will capture it. On the other hand, if you are mugged by burglars on a side street, the same cameras will alert the police and they’ll come within minutes. The debate between privacy and convenience will be a heated one in the beginning of a smart city’s life, but convenience and safety will likely trump privacy. The wealthy will probably be able to buy some privacy at high cost, making it an expensive product, not a human right. The fact is if you decide to live in a smart city, you are signing a new social contract in which you will exchange a great deal of your personal information for convenience.  

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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