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Pixel or player - what role will you play in developing your Smart City?

Twitter: @Waldhuber

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, once notoriously said, “People don't know what they want until you show it to them.” To me, this famous quote illustrates the early years of smart cities’ history. Smart cities were born out of the IT revolution at the beginning of this century. The first smart cities were conceived, planned and implemented by technology giants like IBM, Siemens, GE and Cisco, who supplied infrastructures that enabled cities to better manage the growing urban population and the problems that accompany this growth. Their corporate visions of smart cities are represented in the first large scale smart cities in India, Dubai and China. A decade later, some utopian cities like the planned, automated cities in South Korea and Cisco's somewhat ill-fated Songdo are still waiting for their citizens to embrace them.

As I continue to observe the evolution of smart cities, I become more skeptical of the vision and influence of tech giants. Instead of business-driven blueprints for large-scale smart cities’ implementations, I believe it is the citizen-driven, smaller scale innovations and ideas that are easy to customize and adopt that will be the driving force behind the evolution of smart city technology.

The smart cities podcast was organized as part of Nokia’s joint program with WIRED magazine under the #maketechhuman banner

In a recent podcast organized by WIRED magazine on smart cities with Nokia, Verizon and 451 Research under the #maketechhuman campaign, Mark Bartolomeo, Vice President of IoT and Connected Solutions at Verizon, noted, “We should not look at technology for technology’s sake. We want the companies that make big bets and investments in technology to do it in areas that will really improve society and deliver innovations that will benefit people around the world.”

More and more often we hear of use cases where the citizens start to express their own vision and ideas of successful small city implementations: The infrastructure, applications and IoT design are no longer the domain of just large companies. Open source software, cheaper IoT modules and sensors opened the door to small entrepreneurs and developers, many of them the residents of smart cities.

It's the local citizens who can best identify problems and pain points of their cities and help find a perfect approach to deploy smart city technology. These ideas initiated by citizens like you and me resonate best with other citizens around the globe who embrace and adopt them as fast as brush fire.

In Rio de Janeiro, teens are helping build a smart city and improve living conditions in the surrounding favelas. They’re turning their kites and digital cameras into makeshift drones that connect to the Internet via cell phones. The drones take aerial pictures of the communities and map out hazards. The teens connect to the city’s grid and inform authorities of the dangerous areas. By informing city authorities as soon as a hazard is documented, these kids are not only participating in their community life, but also empowering the city to quickly fix problems.

Ubiquitous wireless networks shape our cities and how we live in and interact with them today and will determine the kind of world our children’s children will inhabit by the end of this century. Personally, I cannot imagine my life in New York without my many connected gadgets. My iPhone helps me search and navigate, get restaurant reviews and show recommendations, look up train schedules, receive real-time traffic alerts, catch an Uber ride and, oh yes, communicate with my friends. As Anthony M. Townsend, the famous urbanist and author, noted in his book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, our smart phones govern the metabolism of our urban lives.

Nokia recognized the trend early on. This year, we launched our third consecutive Open Innovation Challenge, offering the brightest grass-root innovators an opportunity to collaborate on game-changing ideas for IoT and smart cities. Ten creative young innovators from Canada, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland and the U.S. received awards for their technologies and solutions.

The new, grass-root generation of apps and ideas are smartphone-centric, cheap, fun, easy and are inspired by the everyday experience of citizens like you and me. This new smart city movement highlights what is great about city life – social innovations, sharing ideas and resources, communities of interests, easy access to cultural and social services, social media to communicate with your city administration or about an extra room or your personal car to share in the city economy, sharing real-time feeds from the city traffic control, public transportation, and water/energy management systems.

These smart city ideas and homegrown inventions are embraced and implemented faster and cheaper than the large scale, computed and managed blueprints designed by large corporations. And they attract more likeminded young and talented entrepreneurs and citizens who want to play an active role in the life and future of their communities. Citizens don’t want to become mere pixels in the new digital cities. Cities are living and evolving communities. It is up to us to take the wheel and decide where we should steer.

Listen to The Nerdist Podcast on smart cities here.

Share your thoughts on this topic by replying below – or join the Twitter discussion with @nokianetworks using #IoT #SmartCities #maketechhuman #programmableworld.

Elena Waldhuber

About Elena Waldhuber

Elena Waldhuber heads Customer Marketing for Verizon at Nokia Networks. A consummate globetrotter, Elena has lived in many great cities of the world – Vienna, Moscow, London, Brussels, Singapore. She now resides in New Jersey and enjoys weekends in New York, observing the city transforming itself into one of the smartest cities in the world.

Tweet me @Waldhuber.

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