Urbanism in the Information Age 1.0: ‘Smart Cities’

by Andrew Wade

As the first decade of the 21st century reaches its concluding days, I am exploring in a series of posts what it means to have digital technologies shaping our cities. What implications does the information age have on the planning, design and justness of our cities, and how are corporations, designers, and academics utilising the digital medium to generate and communicate their proposals?

In this post I focus on corporations, specifically International Business Machines Corporation, and their emphasis on cities in the 21st century. Recently IBM has built an entire brand from what they call "Smart Cities" which they see as an interconnected strata of urban systems such as transport, communication, water and energy. IBM has focused on the city as its main business strategy and point of intervention, as demonstrated by the Wellington E. Webb quote displayed on their website:
"The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities"
They have then recognised the ability to make them "smarter" by utilising digital systems to collect infrastructural data and build a more responsive city. While this is a clearly executed and persuasive strategy, to what extent is this Fortune 500 company truly leading the way in adapting cities to cope with the expected swelling of the global urban population in the coming decades?

At the very least they can be credited for expanding the conversation on pressing urban issues, and potentially they can be credited with transforming the functioning of cities in the 21st century by using the tool of digital technology to increase the responsiveness, adaptability, and sustainability of cities. While a natural scepticism of such a powerful and wealthy corporation is essential, perhaps the greatest potential for truly large scale transformation comes from businesses with such an enormous resource of financial and human capital.

This leads to the final question of who commissions their consultancy services and for what price. Which cities can afford to be "smart cities" and which cannot? Finally, what motivations could influence them to direct their 12.3 billion dollar profit figure toward not simply giving some cities a competitive edge over others, but rather providing a minimum base of operational and adaptive infrastructure for all cities?

Credits: Image of former IBM logo from wikipedia. Image of modern IBM graphic from their website.


  1. I think there is also a question about the potential for technofetishism and an ignorance of the human side of governance. They break down cities into six or seven categories, only once of which is human in nature. They clearly have an important role to play in helping citizens and planners make better cities. The problem is when they become the driving force. Read their statements about the future of cities, written by two former management consultants/corporate finance people. They view cities like technical systems or large corporations, and there is barely a scent of human feeling anywhere in their pages.

  2. Such interesting questions here. I wasn't really attuned to IBM's focus on cities. After reading your article I came across this video on NPR's All Tech Considered: IBM Predicts Five Trends For Cities.

    I wonder if large corporations can be agents of socially oriented development. They may be the most capable, if only their aims could be adjusted. Sometimes I wish the whole concept of capital would disappear. I don't know what would take its place, but if corporations weren't pressured to use capital for surplus profits maybe they would be less likely to pollute, lay people off, be corrupt, etc. For example, the phrase "human capital" sounds so exploitative.

    I don't know where I'm going with this, just an impression. I'm glad you're thinking of ways to use technology and corporate resources for the greater good.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments. I think the NPR video is interesting, particularly in its mention of the responsiveness of individual buidlings in an intelligent way. This has already been developed to some extent in Denmark's 'Active House':

    I completely agree with the need to look at corporations with a sceptical eye in determining their true motivations. I suppose the main idea is that big corporations often have an incredible capacity for organization and performance on a large scale. If profits and share value were not the primary measures of success, but rather success was judged in a more complex and decentralized way - perhaps in the extent to which a company helps a city to develop in an inclusive and just manner - giants such as IBM may realize a far greater portion of their potential for positive urban transformations.