What today’s “smart city” can learn from the “electric city” 100 years ago

Daniel Honker
Feb 14, 2019 · 5 min read

I work for the City of Austin’s Office of Design & Delivery as part of a team advising on how Austin should approach emerging technology and the “smart city”. Here’s an overview of how we are thinking about smart cities, and we plan to post more in the near future.

A few months ago I had the privilege of speaking on a panel focused on building “inclusive smart cities” — how cities can use technology in a way that solves real problems and benefits everyone. This event is part of a growing number of venues where leaders and practitioners are taking a clear-eyed look at how we might take advantage of the benefits of emerging technology, while being mindful of the downsides, potential risks, and impacts on equity.

A fellow speaker at the event — Kathy Oldham, the Chief Resilience Officer of Manchester, UK — made the point that the “smart city” today is what the “electric city” was 100 years ago. The comparison stuck with me and offers a lot of insight on how cities should think about technology.

Quick history lesson on the “electric city”

Fans of The Office (U.S. version) will remember that Scranton, Pennsylvania is nicknamed “The Electric City”. Cities like Scranton took on this moniker as cities electrified in the late 19th century. As industrialization boomed, cities wanted the electric brand — and the lightbulbs and streetcars that went with it — to attract residents and the growing industries that were also based on electric power. Needless to say, electricity providers promoted this branding to eager municipal customers.

Early 1900s advertisement for Edison Lightbulbs
Early 1900s advertisement for Edison Lightbulbs
Ads like this promoted electrification in well-to-do urban areas… but not everywhere. (Image source)

Scranton wasn’t alone. There were many other electric cities across the U.S.

Like the “smart city” today, the “electric city” was branded and hyped by a growing industry. But here’s the thing: we don’t talk about “electric cities” anymore. What city isn’t electric?

It would be easy to see all the electrification we have now and think that all these cities simply flipped the switch overnight. But not everyone shared the benefits of electrification evenly. It took decades to electrify rural areas and poorer communities, and only after government intervention. For example, the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was largely responsible for creating electric service outside of urban centers. Not to mention Lyndon B. Johnson’s push to electrify the Texas Hill Country through cooperative agreement in the 1930s (which as an Austinite I must call out).

Why we should care about a moniker from a century ago

Both “electric” and “smart cities” are infrastructure movements driven by technological advancements that enable quality of life improvements. Here are a few key similarities:

Electricity enabled entirely new industries — household appliances, radio, nightlife in busy city centers, to name a few. Hi-speed connectivity and machine learning are likewise enabling the introduction of self-driving cars and delivery robots. We won’t even know yet how 5G will change our day-to-day lives until this connectivity is actually available and ubiquitous.

As with the “electric city,” business has boosted the smart city brand, eager to market new solutions for civic challenges. Like Edison and (Nicola) Tesla before them, today’s tech businesses were the early promoters of smart cities in the mid-2000s. And cities eager to attract investment have adopted the brand.

What we can learn from the “electric city”

We won’t be talking about “smart” cities for much longer.

Cities have raced to declare themselves “smart” in recent years, just as they branded themselves “electric” 100+ years ago. Back then, cities rode the peaks and troughs of the hype cycle, but eventually integrated electricity into basic infrastructure and services. The same will prove true with algorithms and automation. Just like its predecessor, “smart” will fade away as a special brand or category of services and become business as usual.

But we need to make sure all share in the benefits of “smart.”

The “electric” brand fell by the wayside because cities declared electricity a basic service, and everything became electric.

Promising, beneficial 5G applications in areas like telemedicine will only be available where there is connectivity for them. Connectivity — and its fiber backbone — has tended to go where the demand and profit are first.

The same was true of electricity. But cities redefined electricity from a luxury to a basic service. It took decades of public debate, legislation, incentive programs, and trials of different business models to get there. Can you imagine what it would be like to have areas of a town of any size without electricity in 2019?

We are at a moment where we need to define what level of connectivity should be a basic service for the next 100 years. This requires governments to understand resident needs and make improvements to public services — not just take cues from the flashy sales of new technologies. Governments must also understand and adapt to the business models that are powering infrastructure and emerging applications. (Hint: The companies developing those applications aren’t necessarily looking for contracts with government.)

In the past century, cities stopped asking “what do we have to do to call ourselves ‘electric’?” and started asking “how might we make affordable electricity available to our residents?” We should likewise flip the script and shift the focus away from the “smart” hype, and onto solving real problems for real people.

Further reading

Others much more knowledgeable on the subject have written about comparisons between fiber and electrification. Here are a few options for more insight:

Thank you to Daniel Culotta and Laura Trujillo for turning my drivel into coherent thoughts and for multiple rounds of edits over the last, well, 6 months.

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic…

Daniel Honker

Written by

Music fan, husband, father. Helping City of Austin solve thorny challenges through people. Opinions and statements are my own.

civiqueso

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic melting pot of Austin, Texas.

Daniel Honker

Written by

Music fan, husband, father. Helping City of Austin solve thorny challenges through people. Opinions and statements are my own.

civiqueso

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic melting pot of Austin, Texas.

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