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Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

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An unflinching look at the aspiring city-builders of our smart, mobile, connected future.

We live in a world defined by urbanization and digital ubiquity, where mobile broadband connections outnumber fixed ones, machines dominate a new "internet of things," and more people live in cities than in the countryside.

In Smart Cities, urbanist and technology expert Anthony Townsend takes a broad historical look at the forces that have shaped the planning and design of cities and information technologies from the rise of the great industrial cities of the nineteenth century to the present. A century ago, the telegraph and the mechanical tabulator were used to tame cities of millions. Today, cellular networks and cloud computing tie together the complex choreography of mega-regions of tens of millions of people.

In response, cities worldwide are deploying technology to address both the timeless challenges of government and the mounting problems posed by human settlements of previously unimaginable size and complexity. In Chicago, GPS sensors on snow plows feed a real-time "plow tracker" map that everyone can access. In Zaragoza, Spain, a "citizen card" can get you on the free city-wide Wi-Fi network, unlock a bike share, check a book out of the library, and pay for your bus ride home. In New York, a guerrilla group of citizen-scientists installed sensors in local sewers to alert you when stormwater runoff overwhelms the system, dumping waste into local waterways.

As technology barons, entrepreneurs, mayors, and an emerging vanguard of civic hackers are trying to shape this new frontier, Smart Cities considers the motivations, aspirations, and shortcomings of them all while offering a new civics to guide our efforts as we build the future together, one click at a time.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published October 7, 2013

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About the author

Anthony M. Townsend

4 books18 followers
Anthony M. Townsend is the author of Ghost Road and Smart Cities, and the president and founder of Star City Group, a strategic foresight and urban planning studio. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews343 followers
November 10, 2013
First came the mainstream computer, enabling a privileged few to perform complex calculations. Then the personal computer, a first step toward the democratization of computing power for the masses. Next, the smart phone and tablet, keeping us constantly connected to the cloud and to each other. What's next? The city itself, according to Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia .

The "city as computer" is Townsend's first premise, and it has been the promise of ubiquitous computing since the phrase was first coined by Mark Weiser in 1988. Indeed, today there are two networked objects connected to the Internet for each of our personal devices. (Think stoplights, traffic cameras, industrial sensors, even refrigerators.) But by 2020 Cisco estimates that some 50 billion objects will be connected to the internet.

The second premise of Smart Cities argues that "the coming century of urbanization is humanity's last attempt to have our cake and eat it too" — our last chance to benefit from the abundance of the industrial revolution while avoiding the destruction of our planet.

The Industrial Revolution was an urban revolution that caused an unprecedented migration of humanity from the farms of the countryside to the factories of the city. In 1900, just 200 million people lived in cities, about one-eighth of the world's population. Today 3.5 billion people live in cities, more than half the world's population. (In the US, Western Europe, and Latin America, that number is closer to 80%.) As Edward Glaeser chronicles in The Triumph of the City , urbanization was an important factor in the unprecedented growth of the global economy throughout the 20th century; with urban density comes the acceleration of innovation while driving down the costs of service delivery and governance.

But Industrialization is also responsible for our greatest 21st century challenge, climate change. If China and India follow the Western model of industrialization, it is doubtful that the planet will hold up. Cities need to use new technologies to increase efficiency and decrease energy consumption: homes and offices that turn off automatically when they detect that your phone is out of range, smart transport to replace individual cars, technologies to reduce water usage, smart electric grids that give incentives to households that produce their own solar energy.

"For the giants of the technology industry," Townsend writes, "smart cities are fixes for the dumb designs of the last century to prepare them for the challenges of the next, a new industrial revolution to deal with the unintended consequences of the first one. Congestion, global warming, declining health -- all can simply be computed away behind the scenes."


Then there's the problem of slums — a "planet of slums" to use Mike Davis' catchy phrase. Cities struggle to keep up with the demand for the benefits they offer their residents. As a result, 62% of city dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa live in slums. In major cities in Latin America, informal slums push up against wealthy, gated communities, yet they are not officially recognized by their city governments. "India needs to build the equivalent of a new Chicago every year to keep up with demand for urban housing," writes Townsend. "In 2001, China announced plans to build twenty new cities each year through 2020." Many of those cities have already been constructed, and remain empty.

China ghost city4

Chinese "ghost cities"

Though affordable housing is the most urgent crisis, cities also struggle to keep up with the demand for water, electricity, waste removal, recreational spaces, wireless bandwidth, and other public services. In order to meet the increasing demand, they will need to provide public services more efficiently and more intelligently. They will need to become smart cities.

Rio Control Center

Rio de Janeiro's Operations Center build by IBM

Townsend's third premise is that there are two paths to develop the operating system that powers the smart city, one modeled on the proprietary Windows operating system and the other modeled on the open, distributed World Wide Web. Cisco, IBM, Siemens, Living PlanIT and General Electric are all aggressively pushing their own proprietary operating systems for the smart city. For IBM, the Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro is the showcase of the Smarter Cities product that they hope to sell to all cities. For Cisco, it's Songdo, South Korea. And for Living PlanIT, it's PlanIT Valley in Portugal.

The alternative to the top-down, corporate version of the smart city, is the bottom-up, grassroots innovation that is exemplified by organizations like Code for America, Tumml, WikiCiudad, OpenPlans, Urban Prototyping, and the hundreds of urban startups that are catalogued on CityMart.

The difference between the top-down and grassroots visions for the smart city is the main narrative tension that accompanies us throughout the rest of the book. Townsend reminds us that this tension that has played out before, when Jane Jacobs took on New York City "master builder" Robert Moses. At the end of World War II, Moses had almost total control over the post-war transformation of New York City. He was responsible for the construction of four major bridges and five major expressways. He reshaped New York around the technology of his day, the automobile. The promise was a more efficient, more comfortable New York where happy families could coast in from the suburbs to their Manhattan offices and back in time for the evening news. But as a result, urban neighborhoods were divided by expressways and hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced to make room for stadiums, highways, and parking lots. Famously, he tried to bulldoze a children's playground in Central Park to make room for more parking at an upscale restaurant. When Moses proposed the Mid-Manhatten Expressway to cut through Greenwich Village and SoHo in order to link New Jersey with Queens, he met his match in journalist-activist Jane Jacobs whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains influential with urban planners around the world.

Robert Moses was the IBM and Cisco of his day — the master planner with all the ideas to make the city more efficient and productive without considering the needs and wants of the people who lived there. Jane Jacobs advocated for the network approach: let decentralized innovation happen organically to respond to the desires of residents. Top-down versus bottom-up innovation.

Townsend is clearly on the side of the grassroots civic hackers and wary of the "smart-city-in-a-box" pitches by big corporations. But the book never quite articulates why we should favor the grassroots tinkerers. What do they offer us that IBM, Cisco, and others do not?

For the answer we must turn to Richard Sennett's 1970 book The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life . Writing when he was just 27-years-old, Sennett wanted to know why a generation that grew up in the post-war suburbs was once again moving back to the inner-city neighborhoods that their parents had fled for the calm comforts of the suburbs. He wanted to understand the sociological forces that drove the first wave of gentrification in the late 60s.

Unemployed in line for rations

Times Square Breadline

First, we must understand the historical context. Those born in the 1920s and 1930s grew up during the great depression. They experienced scarcity first-hand. Their parents waited in breadlines to fill their hungry stomachs with bread and soup. But after World War II, the American economy experienced its greatest period of economic growth. Some six million African Americans migrated from the rural south to the urban north to work in factories and service jobs. When urban White neighborhoods weren't able to keep Blacks from moving in, they fled to the suburbs where they sought homogeneity, tranquility, and comfort. You know: two and a half kids, a golden retriever and a white picket fence.


Their children grew up in very different circumstances. While their parents experienced scarcity, they grew up surrounded by abundance. While their parents were subjected to life-changing surprises, their lives were never-ending routines with clear expectations. While their parents fled the chaotic diversity of urban life, they grew up in the monotony of cookie-cutter, planned communities.

Sennett argues that those of us who grew up in suburbs and are now drawn to urban life are seeking serendipity. We are placing ourselves in circumstances that force us to interact with people who are different from us. We seek a different social and psychological development from our parents. We seek disorder as a means to liberate us from control, homogeneity and habit.

This, I believe, is the great difference in outcome between the top-down and bottom-up visions of the smart city. IBM, Cisco, Siemens — they sell city governments greater control and efficiency, but they could care less about serendipity, social inclusion, and participation. Of course, it doesn't have to be either/or. We need both greater efficiency and greater serendipity in our cities. But we shouldn't sacrifice the latter to achieve the former.
Profile Image for M. Nolan.
Author 2 books14 followers
September 5, 2015
Hmm. I'll start with the positives.

1. I learned a fair amount our power grid. Can't say I knew anything about that.

2. Townsend's criticism of over-planning, mainly in chapters two and three, are fantastic. The "Mirror World" musings were fascinating, and the Jacobsian history of urban theory was fascinating. Had the book ended with chapter three, it would have been a four star book.

Now the the criticisms:

1. The book reads like an advertisement for NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program more than anything.

2. Townsend focuses much on the book on technologies that either failed or never took off. Entire chapters are wasted extolling the virtues of failed or failing technologies like public WiFi and apps like Foursquare/Dodgeball. Given that Townsend started his career with the former, and is friends with the founder of the latter, this focus felt self-serving. Meanwhile, enormous innovations like the sharing economy (or "gig economy," if you like) and self-driving vehicles are hardly mentioned. Transportation issues, which pose an enormous challenge for most cities, are generally ignored.

3. Ideological fears get in the way of more interesting discussions. As one might expect from a left-leaning academic, Townsend is worried about big business taking aloof government officials for a ride. Fair enough. But Townsend seems positively terrified by the idea that anyone might make any money by solving urban problems. Without offering arguments, Townsend effectively demands that urban solutions either come from government-sponsored projects or imaginary mobs of ideal citizens. The silliness of all this reaches a low-point when Townsend dismisses Code for Academy – a non-profit organization founded by a self-identifying progressive – as possibly "techno-libertarian" because they have the audacity to incubate start-ups. All this ultimately distracts from more interesting discussions. How will privacy be protected in the smart city? How will we free up the spectrum needed for the next billion smart phone users? What will it take to deal with web congestion and increase capacity? All essential questions, all largely ignored.

4. A minor style complaint: Why is everyone described as a "hacker"?
752 reviews2 followers
November 3, 2014
"[T]he most common text message, sent billions of times a year all over the world, is 'where r u?'" (7)

"[I]t soon became clear that looking smart, even more than being smart, was the real force driving mayors into the arms of engineers." (68)

"Mirror worlds were 'a centrifuge ... designed to stratify society based strictly on a person's fondness for playing games with machines.'" (quoting David Gelernter, 71)

"In Uganda, for instance, there are now more mobile phones than lightbulbs." (177)

"Unlike other cities, where technology is seen as a catalyst of change, Menino made technology subservient." (215)

"In the 1870s, duplex telegraphs were developed, permitting messages to be sent simultaneously in both directions over a single wire. But sometimes stray signals would come down the line, which were said to be 'bugs' or 'buggy.'" (254)
Profile Image for Mahesh.
88 reviews
April 7, 2014
As much as I wanted to like this book, I suspect the author was determined to fill pages. For every single thing, there was an unnecessary back story (for example, and if I remember correctly, there was a section where the author wanted to talk about the effect of bugs in software, as related to big data/cities, but he decided to give a two page long history about bugs). There were definitely some good ideas in the book but the length rendered the book a bit painful.
In short, the book was needlessly long.
514 reviews128 followers
September 15, 2017
A breezy account of the various ways that cities are being festooned with sensors and how the data generated by those may be used to create greater efficiencies but possibly also more surveillance and social/political control. Glances back episodically at previous episodes of urban planning. The book lacks a clear thesis however and is ambivalent over whether it wants to be in the "gee whiz isn't this tech cool" camp, or in the cluck-click Cassandra mode of warning about dystopian scenarios. The result is that it largely misses what is arguably the main story, namely that the promise of "smart cities" is enormously overhyped marketing guff from Siemens and IBM.
87 reviews17 followers
March 27, 2018
Bailed on this book 1/4 of the way through. Really mostly a survey of technologies with some musings on top. Very historically focused, but not because the history is important to understanding the current situation or the future. Felt very rote, like I was taking a college course and would presumably need to know all this stuff for some purpose later. I read the Sidewalk Labs Toronto Vision and found it a far more interesting and forward looking view of smart cities.
Profile Image for Nabeel Ahmed.
16 reviews4 followers
March 15, 2018
Great accessible introduction to smart cities, suitably cautionary and not full of hype and fluff. Everyone interested in the topic should read it.
6 reviews1 follower
August 11, 2019
Interesting take in urban design but did not age well. To the point of making some predictions or assumptions that missed the mark.
Profile Image for David.
645 reviews235 followers
April 6, 2016
Available as an 11+ hour audiobook. It's worth consuming in that fashion if the alternative is for you (as for me) not consuming it at all. However, the ideas come thick and fast, so probably worth the effort to engage in some old-school reading on this one, if you are still retro enough to read books.

Liam's review here at Goodreads has a nice selection of quotes from the book which demonstrate the thick and fast ideas. I'd like to add one more, which occurs in the audiobook chapter 9 (physical book chapter 7), at approximately 36:45:

It turned out that, in their quest to maintain steady reductions in the reported rate of crime, police officers allegedly routinely re-classified crimes as less serious offenses and even discouraged citizens from reporting them in the first place …. When data drives decisions, decisions about how to record the data will be distorted.

which resonated with me as when my passport was stolen last year, the prime concern of the police officer responding was to categorize the event as “lost property”.

The book's main contention seems to be that we'd be better off, on the whole, if we actively discouraged, or even disrupted, top-down government-business partnerships intended to make the city smarter. Instead, the book maintains, an array of volunteer digital hackers/programmers in every city should be encouraged to develop open-source solutions for their immediate environment, the best of which presumably could be copied, adapted, and/or improved. The idea that digital hackers/programmers will appear where- and whenever needed seems to me to be a bit of hopeful magical thinking, based on the understandable desire to push big government and business back a few paces in their seemingly unstoppable colonization of our private lives.
Profile Image for Peter Foley.
9 reviews3 followers
November 26, 2013

The smart city debate continues between the top down approach promoted by technology companies, and the bottom up actors including advocates, hackers and the civic engagement movement. Townsend appears aligned with the bottom up approach to smart cities, but does provide a balanced perspective of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

I am familiar with much of the subject matter and found that reading this book deepened my understanding, and provided me with many valuable insights. Smart Cities includes an excellent historical comparison to the current debate, with examination of the previous models of rational city planning, along with proponents of more citizen-centric city building.

Townsend has done much work in NYC, and the examples and experience reflect this context. It is a well researched book and presents smart cities as a solution to the challenges of the 21st century city.

After a few chilling chapters concerning privacy/surveillance and the brittleness of emerging technologies, the final chapter presents an excellent set of principles, likely geared more towards civic hackers, but certainly to be digested by the larger tech firms.

One great take-away that I enjoyed was the comparison of "Technology Design" to Urban Design, where technology is designed to engage and respond to whats around it, and not simply for a single screen/interface. A future vocation presumably.

One final thought is that the book Smart Cities was balanced, engaging and relevant while at times sobering. There is no talk of flying cars or jet packs, no grand visions, or easy solutions. This will I believe help the conversation, but may be missing a spark or accelerant.

Profile Image for amy.
663 reviews
May 19, 2014
A mixed-up compromise between history, criticism, and recommendations for building smart cities that aren't awful and run by corporations. Townsend has high praise for Code for America, NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and local broadband (i.e. Chattanooga). He spends a ton of time on tiny projects like something called Botanicalls (plant tweets when it needs water, admittedly cool) while rushing through The History Of Cities in a really breezy and facile way.

The book ends with a call for something called Slow Data, which "must be collected, sparingly and by design, not harvested opportunistically from data exhaust. Rather than hide the trade-offs between consumption and conservation, slow data makes it explicit. It makes us choose. And slow data leverages our humanness, by generating social interactions that help address these vexing problems." Hard to get through -- especially the last couple of sentences -- but it's an attempt to reconcile "urban science" with the kind of small projects people already take on in their cities: bike more, garden/farm, start tool libraries, fix things, and so on.

Townsend's skepticism about large-scale efforts to make cities better is entirely welcome; but I don't know that the projects he approves of are necessarily any more responsible or sustainable than those he rejects. The book feels, at times, as though its author started with a list of favorite projects and wrote the book around them, trying to build out an argument about smart cities from a couple of pet examples. Uh-oh... could this be longform datum journalism at work? (I kid, mostly.)
Profile Image for Pablo Lafón.
14 reviews5 followers
November 10, 2013
I thought this book would be mostly about architecture, but I was wrong. The entire concept of this book is "Corporations are making advances on planning smart citites, but don't surrender the entirety of the projects to them,make space for organic innovation and integretaion of the average citizen. The way it was written was not very technical, very annecdotal, but still a bit of a slog. I would recommend it if you are interested in any way on getting ides to present to city developers and city hall, otherwise, I would skip it altogether.
Profile Image for Panz.
149 reviews
December 25, 2017
It's a little longer read than I expected, perhaps because I was not expecting so much historical background to smart cities and rather a futuristic outlook. The comprehensiveness of the content was a pleasant surprise and I probably did not grasp everything in the first read through. Solid recommendation for anyone even remotely interested in this area, you'll find a lot more work has been done than meets the eye
Profile Image for Mark.
137 reviews4 followers
July 15, 2015
I didn't finish this work. To be honest, I couldn't get past the rah-rah "ain't tech great and ain't it going to save us through crowd sourcing data crunching." The author did occasionally mention all this is totally dependent on the infra staying up and people having the tech to access the data. Unfortunately, that got set aside fairly quickly.

Other reviews I've read will provide you a whole lot better critiques of this work. I encourage you to find and read them.
Profile Image for Justin Cole.
19 reviews
April 17, 2015
As someone interested in the future of cities, I think that this is one of the few (if not only) books out there that do a great job not only detailing the history of "smart cities" but the many failures that have shaped the notions of how technology can improve the lives of urban dwellers.
Profile Image for Rodrigo.
398 reviews18 followers
December 8, 2014
Bom apanhado geral sobre o tema.
Good overview about the subject.
Profile Image for Roberto Charvel.
47 reviews1 follower
September 22, 2020
I had been eyeing this book for quite a while. It had the perfect title and the author seemed to have the right qualifications for writing a great book, but I really struggled to finish it.

The books doesn’t have a comprehensive structure or a clear plan to describe or define what a smart city is. Most of the book references American cities (are they really the most “Smart Cities” in the world?). Foreign references seem distant. Vague and seem incidental rather to explaining to the point what has worked or what can be done better.

Maybe the book didn’t age well. The author spends too much time around wifi hotspots, which are relevant but not what makes a city smart.

There is no reference to policing and how technology is helping cities fight crime. I was interested in reading the American perspective on face recognition a the social capital structure developed in China.

I hope to find a book that is brave enough to look for best practices when it comes to traffic and how can cities become “smart” about it. Is there any tech used in Denmark or the Netherlands that helps people choose bicycles over cars? Isn’t it smart that London has a congestion tax for cars that want to circulate in the main circuit of the city?

What are the best practices on utilities? Trash services? These things seem basic but they are nowhere to be found in this book. These issues are already being tested in different cities, but what about 5G? How will that make cities smart? I also was surprised that there is no mention to driverless cars or the trend for retailers to ship directly to consumers skipping stores. There is no mention to any of these challenges.

There are different parts of the book that are interesting like the description of how Barcelona became a modern city in 1854 with Idelfo s Cerdá; how the US census is the origin of IBM in the 1890s or the history of cable technology and its origins in providing broadcast television to remote communities in the mountains in 1948.

Sadly, the narrative gets lost among so many anecdotes that seem to lack weight when making a point or to come together to create a constructive argument.

The author self praises himself for building the largest hotspot at the time in the US in Bryant Park in NY. WiFi was an idea that N. Tesla developed and advanced on. Tesla lost his mind and poor and lonely spent the last years of his life feeding pigeons in Bryant Park. That image -which is not referenced in the book- really helps me assimilate this book. The book seems to be those last confusing years of Tesla’s life.

I am excited to find the right book of how innovation and technology are really helping cities keep up with the times. Reading this book during Covid lockdown, makes me think that a great author would also include some science fiction in predicting how cities will or should use technology to face health emergencies and other potential risk to come in liu of climate change.
Profile Image for Yerzhan Karatay.
24 reviews10 followers
August 14, 2020
To be honest, I started reading the book because of its name.
So when I opened Smart Cities, I was expecting to see the author's vision on what a smart city should be like, now I'm quite unsure if we're capable of controling the bugs, and in a way, I got what he wanted to convey, there are things to improve but I can't say it was really well-written, not sure if I understood everything he meant to share, it felt like Anthony Townsend went too deep into the past to describe technologies and their weaknesses, though it's nice to know the story of the first public wi-fi solutions. City societies can solve many problems once there is public access to data, I'd expect more discussions on some issues like water, energy, air pollution management.
Profile Image for Patrick King.
35 reviews10 followers
December 12, 2017
This immensely well written and easy to enjoy. Early comments about the Power Broker Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs illustrated a more thoughtful reflection of the issues facing "Smart Cities". This is perfect for the planner / technocrat but not a how to guide as it's up a level from that - thankfully. I found the insights deep at times though the bulk of the text was not necessarily new. If you're interested in smart cities this worth a read - 3.5 stars
Profile Image for KKJ.
122 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2021
Even tho this book is only 5 years old, it feels a little bit outdated. I think thats a hard problem with more technology oriented books. I’m familiar with the majority of examples and concepts that Townsend described, although he worded them well so I still enjoyed reading them. I wish he had provided a few more ideas around solutions or success stories as opposed to constantly referring to “grassroots” and “hackers” as the basis for ideal smart city strategies.
May 13, 2022
The most relevant book on smart cities I've read.
The author gives a broad definition of the smart city, inscribes its evolution in a historical process that dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, analyzes the major failures of urban policies, and the risks and opportunities of digital technologies based on an assessment of the purely techno-centric approach promoted by the major American technology firms.
Well written, clear, and enjoyable to read.
Profile Image for Bluedisc.
28 reviews
December 26, 2018
Honestly it was a good book. He is a good writer and talks about how the world has changed over the past 20+ or so years with regards to technology changing city life. Full disclosure, I only read about 120 pages throughout different parts of the book and stopped for reasons un-related to the book. I think I'll come back and finish it some day in the future.
17 reviews
August 16, 2020
mostly critical of existing technology that was developed to solve pre-existing issues, current unsolved urbanisation issues were hardly addressed. it's always easy to criticise existing processes, but difficult to innovate and was hoping to read more ideas and forward thinking rather than critiques on other peoples inventions.
Profile Image for Scott.
260 reviews12 followers
February 17, 2018
An interesting read, providing an oversight of the technology that is connecting cities.

However, not quite what I was expecting in regards to how this technology can be leveraged by the individual and the organisation.
Profile Image for Dan.
55 reviews3 followers
June 20, 2019
I'm not sure what I expected from this book, but whatever it was, it didn't offer it. Very wishy-washy talk about how some cities have turned smart, quickly changing subject when all the shallow aspects have been discussed.
Profile Image for Adrian Halpert.
136 reviews1 follower
December 19, 2019
An important read about the emergence of smart technologies in cities. This book felt a bit rambling at times, but overall I think it's a good contribution to the conversations about the potentials and pitfalls and applying smart technology to urban landscapes.
3.5/5 Stars
1 review
October 19, 2020
An interesting take on different methods to improve urban planning with, however, does have some digression in his writing. It provides a decent history of what has happened in the past and what could happen in the future.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews

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