What does it take to build a smart city?

It isn’t just the buildings and the technology that define a smart city: the different philosophies and the people that make up a city are crucial to the process. Shaun Abrahamson heads the Urban.US accelerator, a hub for startups looking to tackle difficult urban issues. His accelerator is focused on allocating capital away from the flashy consumer-based applications that populate typical accelerators, and directing it towards meaningful ideas and teams that will look to shape the cities of the future.

Shaun thinks that cities of the future will be built from the bottom, up. He sees the more run-down neighborhoods as potential for efficient, decentralized innovation that will spring forward and encompass the city around it.

Shaun envisions more of a lean and agile approach to innovation, one that rapidly moves from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, rather than an innovation that is centrally set for all districts at the same time.

Change requires a catalyst: and in an age where humanity will hit the limits placed upon us by nature’s scarcity, cities may need to be pushed against the wall before they truly change. A smart city is one that realizes this will happen, and begins pushing back before it has to.

That requires some degree of traditional top-down management to set the path for urgent coordinated action. A smart city is one that strikes the right balance between centralized authority, and decentralized diffusion, so as to optimize solutions for all.

What are some of the solutions a smart city can deliver? Shaun points to Waze, a crowdsourced GPS which has managed to more efficiently tackle traffic issues by tracking different traffic jams to avoid. Instead of using satellites from the sky, Waze relies on human input from the ground: the perfect confluence of human intelligence and technology that scales and spreads it: the basis of a smart city.

Urban.US holds similar portfolio companies, including Dash, a solution that tracks your car’s performance so you can optimize your energy use, and HandUp, a crowdfunding solution for homeless citizens, that allows you to get a glimpse of their personal narrative. Instead of a concerted top-down approach that dictates innovation, the startups use the power of the crowd and bottom-up innovation to tackle protracted urban issues.

A smart city is built on a rational, data-driven, and lean foundation. It is a city that acknowledges the right balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches to allow for the builders and innovators to build intelligent solutions to persistent problems. It looks very much like a bunch of intelligent actors working together with one another to achieve great things: a portrait of Urban.US extended to an urban level. As Shaun ends the call, one gets the distinct feeling that the ideas and teams we discussed will form the basis for the smart cities of the future.

Roger Huang
Roger is an entrepreneur who is writing a book on the future of various fields, based on the perspectives of technologists pushing the forward forward. Catch his writings at www.code-love.com, and his musings on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning about entrepreneurship and code, join his mailing list.