The Good, The Bad And The Disruptive

December 05, 2016
The Good, The Bad And The Disruptive

When it comes to projects that aspire to change reality, we usually find a pivotal moment. This crossroad is when you must decide what is truly possible and what is teetering on the edge between dream and reality. It is this equilibrium between theory and praxis, dreams and reality that embody the actions of those who, like us, dream about smart ecosystems and new urban environments.

At Barcelona’s Smart City Expo World Congress, experts and practitioners from around the world gathered to observe what innovations are being used, what new solutions have been developed and to what extent theory is pushing the boundaries of today’s reality. The event itself, the world’s largest Smart City gathering, is at a pivotal moment and its own crossroad between three paths—the good, the bad and the disruptive. 

From its inception, the Smart City Expo World Congress seeks to push the envelope for advancement in the deployment of new technologies, the exploration of new governance models and to fight the inertia of government. It is this latter reality that poses the greatest threat to innovation within our cities. This year’s gathering awakened those paying attention to the fact that we, as a Smart Cities community, find ourselves in the same crossroads, fighting the same battles between the good, the bad and the disruptive. 

The “bad”, materialized in the comfort of business as usual, finds itself among those public and private sector representatives who continue to share the same stories of years gone by and of technologies originally deployed in what the digital age would consider an eon ago. These solutions are still being implemented because many cities have not had the foresight, the financing, the political will and/or determination to alter their reality. Few cities want to be at the bleeding edge of technological advancement, fewer still have the resources to seriously consider it. As a result, innovation generated by burgeoning entrepreneurs and talented individuals can easily be lost to time as cities struggle to operate at the pace of innovation.

Fortunately, this crossroad is balanced by the “good”. We have proven technologies such as those that provide eco-friendly and smart lightning systems as well as smart trash management and parking sensors. These stalwarts of the Smart Cities movement have made their presence known, the business case has been established and the return on a city’s investment calculable. These are the pioneers of Smart City innovation that pave the way forward and blaze a trail for emerging technologies to travel.

It is clear to any veteran of the Smart City Expo World Congress that the industry giants have dominated this space. Their presence within the exhibition hall has increased, their impact in cities globally has been realized and their ability to deliver smart solutions has developed a multi-billion-dollar industry.

All of this is “good”, but the greatest good is the space for new businesses, creative problem solvers and yes, new technologies, to rise from the ashes of the trailblazing giants. This year at the Expo there was an increased presence of giants sharing their pavilion space with these emerging businesses. This offer of joint space—akin to inviting the children to the grownups’ table for Thanksgiving dinner—gives credence to new solutions and offers an opportunity for attendees to explore a new version of the future beyond LED lighting and smart parking. However, the challenge with the “good” is the inherent paternalism that exists in both the public and private sectors that can control the free and widespread dispersion of new technologies.  

Finally, there is the “disruptive;” the road that embodies the wild spirit of technology, imagined by so many cultures before us, like the roman God Janus, with its two faces summarizing the good, the bad, and everything in between. The disruption generated does not come from the technology or innovation itself, but rather from the glimpse of a future not previously considered. The “disruptive” changes our reality—it pushes the boundaries of the status quo and defeats government inertia. The “disruptive” opens the possibility for dreams to come true, for us to take control of our future and deliver innovative solutions to today’s challenges forever altering the future we would have otherwise experienced.  What we are really doing is imagining a future that no longer belongs to us—we are just the architects, or even less, just humble dreamers of a better future to come.

The Smart City Expo World Congress’ impact stretches far beyond the walls of the exhibition hall. Its role as the world’s greatest convener of thought leaders and practitioners in the Smart Cities movement enables the exchange of knowledge, technologies, and ideas to design the future.  There is a true value of the Smart City Expo World Congress its ability to identify and discuss the challenges to come. It is our responsibility, in this critical crossroad, to choose our path. We must choose between that which is traditional, transitional or truly transformative—the good, the bad and the disruptive.

Mike Lake is the President and CEO of Leading Cities (formerly World Class Cities Partnership at Northeastern University). He co-wrote this article with Dr. Joaquin Rodriguez, Leading Cities' Barcelona Coordinatior.

Mike Lake

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