When planning smart cities, we do well to remember the real residents

Who are we building smart cities for, anyway? We would do right to remember.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

I've been working my way through some of IBM's white paper materials about Smart Cities and came across a demographic statistic from their research that made me pause: That is, in many top cities around the globe, the education level of the workforce in selected cities is generally far less than the average for the parent country.

The numbers were crunched up by the IBM Institute for Business Value and is based on various census data from around the world. I've summarized the data in the chart below:

The reason I'm thinking about this statistic is because much of the focus in the various Smart Cities projects that are going on in the United States and elsewhere are in the largest metropolitan areas, which have become huge population centers and are expected to continue to become even larger.

By extension, that means these projects need to consider these demographic dynamics perhaps a bit more carefully than they have in the past. What good, for example, would a close focus on telecommuting programs be, for example, if most of the people that live in a given city work in their local neighborhood. What expectations can city leaders have about their residents access to technology, if it hasn't been part of their public education experience? What does this say about the preferred mode of Internet access: mobile phones vs. Internet connections vs. wireless television feeds.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, when it comes to designing municipal sustainability programs, but city leaders need to get even closer to their constituents to figure out what they REALLY need.

Seeing this data also reminded me that the Environmental Protection Agency is definitely on this challenge, through a series of public housing grants and urban development funds that are aimed across a broad swath of urban development projects grounded in "smart growth" principles. One simple example is the fact that the agency just passed new HUD guidelines intended to help clean up land for multifamily housing projects. There are 36 "green" public housing transformation projects being targeted around the country, including this one that just got funded in Denver.

Don't get me wrong: I am a huge advocate of the smart cities projects going on around the world and with the idea of getting things going without waiting for oodles of research. But let's be real: smart cities development will be caught up in as much (actually probably more) of the same politics that govern existing public works projects and grants -- and that have governed them for hundreds of years. We would do well to remember that, in order to spend that money in as smart a way possible.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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