Technology is Not the Answer

smart citiesThere’s been a theme running throughout the last few posts on this blog: technology is not the answer to urban problems, not even in cities designed completely around it. At Living Labs Global’s Summit on Service Innovation in Cities, world leaders agreed that “smart cities” are more than just technological robots. Rather, a well-planned and designed city in which policies, public-private partnerships, and technologies work together in concert is the smartest city. The magazine Scientific American ran an issue entitled “Better, Greener, Smarter Cities” in September 2011. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. I noticed some similar themes in their pages. The “In Brief” notes to the article The Social Nexus focus ironically on inhabitants’ acquisition and use of electronic devices to better connect citizens with government. But the meat of the article itself promotes the idea that it was not the technology itself, but rather smart, organized citizens who leveraged technology as a tool to bring about change in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Overall, the author suggests that technology will enable a new perspective on cities, which is from the bottom up, which resonates strongly in the current Occupy Movement political frame.

In another article, Edward Glaeser writes that cities are growing and the increasing proximity of the world’s people fuels economic prosperity and health. He also uses the recent example of how Facebook was used in Egypt. But again, the technology is highlighted as a mere tool; nothing would have happened had citizens not also taken their message offline to the streets of Tahrir Square to demand change.

I write this article to remind my colleagues and readers, but especially to remind myself, that in most cases technology is not the answer. Communications technologies in particular are tools to be leveraged; it is not technologies themselves but human minds, policies, and partnerships that will create the world’s smartest cities.

-          Terra Curtis