Smart Cities Aren't

That is, unless they're about more than technology

What is a smart city? If you ask five people for the definition, you’ll likely get five very different answers.

Here are just a couple examples:

From Wikipedia: “A smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently.”

From the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance:

A smart city is an environment that enables all of us to effectively and efficiently live, work and play. It leverages advancements in science and technology to create an area that is intelligent about strategic and tactical needs and wants of all the constituents.”

I had lunch recently with a guy who helps municipalities and other organizations implement “smart technology.” He recounted a time when his prospective client, a developer, told him he wanted to embed some smart technology in an upcoming project. My lunch partner started telling the client about how he could deliver “smart ads” into people’s phones based on their geolocation, target coupons to passers-by based on previous purchases and time of day, etc. After a bit of this, the developer stopped my lunch partner and said, “All I really want is to be able to turn the lights down in the apartments remotely.” There’s nothing wrong with that perspective; it was just different from what my lunch partner had in mind when he heard “smart technology in a brand-new development.”

Smart Cities aren’t just about cool tech. Too often, people hear the term and immediately begin to think about the tech without considering what its meant to improve. It’s easy to get enamored with technology and forget about the “why” behind what you’re trying to do. In Design Thinking, we focus on the human experience — the user’s experience — and then determine what technologies, services, processes or products are needed. In other words, we focus on the “why” of technology, rather than the “what”. 

Smart cities have the potential to save water and energy, improve access to critical services like first responders and health care, reduce traffic congestion, assist city planners and managers to make driving, parking and shopping more efficient, reduce crime and make public spaces safer, improve disaster planning, help connect businesses and customers, optimize transportation, effectively allocate city resources … and yes, even manage the lights remotely. 


That same technology also has the potential to create security vulnerabilities that could affect lives and safety, violate people’s privacy and threaten the safe and effective operation of critical infrastructure and services. Smart City technologies may be neutral – how, and perhaps more importantly why they are implemented will determine whether they ultimately become a boon or a bane.

At the Denver Smart City Forum June 28, various speakers repeatedly emphasized that “smart” technology has to be about the people.

As Erik Mitisek, the State of Colorado’s Chief Innovation Officer, noted in his opening dialogue, “People, not technology, will create smart cities.” This is a guy whose very job title says “technology” – and yet he understands it’s about the people in the end.

When we get enamored with new tools and toys as “tech for tech’s sake,” we lose the perspective of how smart cities should really work for end-users – the people who live there. Human-centered, user-centered, citizen-centered – all different ways of highlighting that smart city success (and really the success of any endeavor) relies on keeping the people as the focus when creating solutions…not the technology.

Smart cities aren’t smart unless they’re smart about people, not just technology.

Joe "Hark" Herold is the CEO of DesignThinkingDenver. He served 28 years in the United States Air Force and now works with organizations of all types to help them achieve their mission and vision … better. 

Categories: Tech