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February 16, 2009

Smart Cities and the University

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education posted this edited version of the blog entry below. As always, thanks in advance for the feedback.


As much as the Internet has changed everything about our lives it is about to change everything about the cities we live in. I think America’s great universities need to embrace a new research and learning agenda that focuses on the engineering, sociology, health, and economy of the ‘smart city’.

The number of people living in urban areas is projected to grow from 3 billion today to 5 billion by 2030. For the first time in our collective experience as humans, more people are living in cities than in rural settings. Urbanization is a global trend impacting citizens, governments, and industries. For most American research universities the topic of urbanization and its future is an externalized condition to be studied as something happening out there. Many of our great research universities are situated in cities that are themselves shrinking. To be sure, there is much active research on the impact of urbanization on critical considerations like the environment. For example, the world's 20 most populous cities alone are responsible for 75 percent of the planet's energy consumption. But not unlike research in the 1950s and 60s on population control and the green revolution, most of the research on the future of the city is directed on the big challenges facing the human condition reflected in the megalopolises of South Asia and the oceans of slums teaming with humanity in “messy” places like India and “dark” places like Nigeria. There is plenty of debate as to whether global technologies based on the Internet will homogenize the human experience across the globe or whether they may indeed exacerbate the divides. A second, perhaps in the long term more impactful trend is beginning to emerge as the Internet matures and expands from being a technology based on connecting computers and mobile devices towards a technology that connect everything, including the rise of ‘smart cities’.

When history is written a hundred years from now, I think the next 10 years, until 2020 will turn out to be pivotal. The new global urbane experience will be undergirded by emergent technologies that are coming out of our labs and new technology ventures which together will make up the DNA of the smart city. Smart transportation systems and buildings that breathe and report their health are only the beginning. Sensors that both intelligently capture data on the quality of the air we breathe and simultaneously becomes the live lab for school children and post docs alike. Healthcare education and much of our health care can become proactive in the smart city as both consumers and providers are able to customize their experience with better intelligence related to the population’s general and specific health needs. The smart city will include not only access to a more transparent government but also enable citizens to participate more actively and directly than ever before.

Smart cities are coming. Whether we turn them into the locus of our future research and learning program is our choice. The integrated and rosy colored vision of the smart city that supports intentional community building and the rise of a new urbanism is contested terrain. As the stimulus package coming out of Washington tries to re-catalyze economic growth, job creation, and new skills for the nation’s future, the University is the recipient of much scarce public investment and the source of much of our country’s collective hope. Before our elected officials demand more accountability on how we spent the public purse associated with the stimulus package of 2009, the time is ripe to commit, among other critical research and learning agendas, to embrace the commitment to re-imagine, re-invent, and re-stimulate the urban experience as one based on a smart city created in the image of the mission of our universities, as a place that attracts the bright, the curious, those seeking inspiration and those committed to changing the world. There may be no better place to launch this university-centered smart city project than in the shrinking cities of America and Europe, home to some of our best universities who greatness was itself the product of a time to define knowledge centers as the cornerstone of the building of the industrial age.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 16, 2009 01:49 PM and tagged

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