Anthony Townsend “People are aware that the path to smartness is going to take longer”

The title of his book says it all. 'SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia'. In one sentence urbanist and research director at the Institute of the Future, Anthony Townsend captures the dilemma of the cities of the future. Townsend, one of the keynote...

Anthoney TownsendThe title of his book says it all. ‘SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia’. In one sentence urbanist and research director at the Institute of the Future, Anthony Townsend captures the dilemma of the cities of the future. Townsend, one of the keynote speakers of the Amsterdam Smart City Event 2014, shares his views on the cities of tomorrow.

As Townsend writes in his book cities worldwide are searching ways to use technology to ‘to address both the timeless challenges of government and the mounting problems posed by human settlements of previously unimaginable size and complexity.”

Not an easy task but for Townsend it’s clear that the top-down approach, directed by government and industry, does not work. According to him people in local governments also ‘are very skeptical of the solutions being offered by big players. ,, Much more aware than in the past that the path to smartness is going to take longer, and consist of many small steps rather than a few big ones. And they are much more aware of the constellation of smaller players in the marketplace that have great solutions to offer, and the kinds of things that can be leveraged from citizen-driven and informal efforts.

Also the crisis helped in it’s own way. ,,It was actually the crisis that stimulated the first wave of top-down smart city projects, as big IT companies adroitly pivoted to exploit the stimulus spending that many governments carried out during the 2008-2010 period. But since then,  we have seen local governments all over the world trapped in a very difficult budget situation. They have not had the money to simply write big checks to established vendors for heavily integrated solutions. They’ve had to be much more careful and cautious about buying technology, which has been good for small businesses and citizen-led technology projects – they are more lean and willing to go further.”

A new challenge for ‘new’ City Hall.  ,,I don’t think that a few years ago people would have expected that city governments would be calling the shots. I think a lot of people expected they would more or less be rolling over and competing with each other to see who could get IBM to deploy their stuff faster – kind of a global technological version of the economic competition you see between cities. In fact, that’s what people at IBM told me they expected. What’s actually happened is that these projects are all a lot more complex and there are many more stakeholders and conflicting objectives than people thought, and its come down to civic leaders to sort it all out and prioritize against very limited resources to actually do stuff.”

Townsend has also an advice to all the participants form all over the world. ,,I believe the key challenge right now is figuring out how cities comprehensive plan the digital urban realm, and its integration with the physical, economic and social realm that is shaped by policy and planning. A handful of cities around the world are now doing this, essentially developing and implementing what look a lot like digital master plans – documents that articulate strategy, policies and programs and sources of funding going forward 5-10 years.

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