The other side of the Smart City hype curve: introducing CityFi

About a century separates these two Scientific American covers above. We’ve been talking about “smart” cities for a very long time.

Maybe not in so many words, but the idea of designing (or re-designing) cities and towns to optimize them far pre-dates digital technology. Sometimes the term is at the forefront of urban rhetoric and marketing — during election cycles or after natural disasters, for instance. Or when new industry entrants smell a market opportunity.

And sometimes the idea recedes a bit. Recently we’ve seen outright hostility to “smart cities”.

But no matter when we’re talking about smart cities we often do so in terms of individual systems or projects. This city is smart because of its low-carbon transit network. This city is smart because of its waste-to-energy plant. This city is smart because of its predictive policing. Search the web for “smart city” and you’ll find no lack of top ten lists of projects that promise to improve your metro. But often these projects are so tied to specific new technologies that they will either fail or be obsolesced by the volatility of technological change.

This is a good point to be at. The hype is gone. The early players have moved on. We have almost a decade’s worth of examples of what works and what doesn’t. The imperative to make our cities more liveable and sustainable has never been greater. It’s time to flip the script.

Ours is a city-powered planet. Our urban areas grow by 3 million people a week. Metropolitan and urban areas are the engines of the global economy, producing some 70% of its output, with some individual metro regions accounting for as much as a third of their national economies. Most important, they are home to just under 4 billion citizens who live, love, and contribute to their society in innumerable ways.

How do we ensure that our cities continue to catalyze social mobility, generate new ideas, and provide economic return without becoming brittle, unsustainable, or simply fake? Put another way, how do we avoid the mistake of early smart city efforts which focused almost solely on optimizing the phyiscal city without much thought at all to the experience of the actual human beings who live there?

To accommodate growth and to continue to be productive metropolitan areas need to quickly provide better connectivity through active transportation, transit systems, and broadband; fairer, broader options for affordable housing; and more vibrant public spaces and civic amenities — all while finding new ways to finance these projects and to monitor and improve their performance. This takes mutual understanding with shared goals and incentives.

The public and private models that informed urban design in the 20th century are in the process of massive transformation. Businesses need open-minded governments and those same governments need private sector innovation for mutual success.

The good news? There are innovative approaches and new technologies that, deployed correctly, can help cities put the lived experiences of people — from the stoop to the skyscraper — front and center.

The bad news? Much of the culture of technology today prioritizes wiping the slate clean, disrupting indiscriminately when targeted change is what’s needed. Outcomes matter; why and how you do something determines the societal benefit. The obvious is not necessarily the truth — and intuition without data can be worthless. The city is not a tabula rasa; go build a mall or an amusement park instead. Our urban ecosystems demand close scrutiny of what we’ve done right in city-making the past several millennia. Technology is a fulcrum, to be sure, but we must make certain we are lifting up the right things with it.

Today we introduce CityFi, a company founded on these principles of smart change and responsible urbanism. We advise cities, corporations, foundations, and start-ups, helping them make sense of our urbanizing world.

The CityFi team is a network of professionals who have implemented policies and projects at senior levels in government, foundations, and the private sector. Our team members have proven records of success delivering sustainable, significant, and systemic change in the way cities work for people, allowing everyone to participate in and enjoy their communities.

We foster true partnerships that create value for people, for the environment, and for the economy.

We work with innovative global and local companies to deliver top-flight services that enhance the civic experience without imperiling the public good.

At its core, CityFi believes that great cities come not from monolithic projects but rather emerge from carefully-designed underlying conditions — street grids, equitable housing policies, business-friendly regulation — so that beneficial complexity can grow. This is how our most resilient, productive cities have grown for a very long time. We’d like to keep that growth going.

For more information on CityFi and what we do, visit our website and our Twitter feed.

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