In 2009, the city of Songdo, South Korea, scored $47 million from Cisco Systems to construct its urban plumbing the digital way. Today, roads outfitted with sensors track traffic patterns. An electrical grid equipped with more sensors monitors the movements of residents. The heartbeat of Songdo, translated into millions of sensor readings, is relayed to large data centers in the city’s center where, the thinking goes, tech-savvy government managers will discern patterns about the flow of parcels and people -- when cars are on the road, when folks are traveling in elevators -- and eventually find a way to choreograph a seemingly endless sequence of individual actions into a dance designed for optimal efficiency.
Welcome to the Smart City, a land where the internet is a friend always, and electronic interconnectivity between infrastructure and people is the rule. Anthony Townsend, director of urban research at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, extols the virtues of such a place in his new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. Townsend envisions a modern City Upon a Hill, a beacon of orderliness diligently watched over by computers and expertly administered by public officials guided by a contemporary, high-tech version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. If water, sewage systems, and gas were the utilities that powered the rapid growth and expansion of cities worldwide through the late 19th and much of the 20th century, the network will transform the cities of the 21st, he says.