Street Smarts

By Kevin Ashton

Cities that don't embrace the Internet of Things will be left behind.


In 1680, the City of London installed oil lamps on its streets. The lamps were left burning each night until midnight. The reduction in crime and the increase in nightlife were so great that after 1736, the lamps were kept lit until sunrise. As the city grew, refilling, lighting and extinguishing the lamps became expensive and laborious. In 1807, London introduced a disruptive fuel: gas produced from coal. Gas drove the growth of Victorian London, and with it the British Empire.

In 1878, the technology changed again: The Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment were the first streets in the world to be lit with electric lights.

Today, we take electric streetlights for granted, along with their consequence—cities that are as alive at night as they are during the day.

Now, another big change is coming to our cities: the Internet of Things. Increasingly, people are moving back from suburbs to cities, which face scaling problems including overcrowding, traffic, crime and disease. City governments have identified, and in some cases deployed, applications for RFID and wireless sensor networks that manage, for example, transportation and precious maintenance resources.

In November, 9,000 people attended the Smart City Expo World Congress, in Barcelona, Spain. Keping Zhang, director of information technology for Wuxi, a city of seven million people, talked about how he is leading China’s Internet of Things revolution. Brenna Berman, Chicago’s CIO, discussed the challenges of modernizing that city’s information architecture. Pedro Paulo Carvalho, chief of staff in Rio de Janeiro, explained how sensors are improving the city’s security.

But—and it’s a big but—there are thousands of cities worldwide, and only 400 were represented in Barcelona. Many cities are missing the Internet of Things revolution, and some of them will die as a result. In 1840, St. Louis, Missouri, had nearly four times the population of Chicago, roughly three hundred miles to the north. By 1890, Chicago was twice as big as St. Louis. Today, Chicago is nine times bigger. One of the main reasons is technology: Chicago was quick to embrace the railroad while St. Louis was slow to let go of the steamboat. This was a deliberate policy on Chicago’s part. The city’s leaders believed railroads would draw people and industry, and, thus, Chicago would become an important transportation and commercial center. The leaders of St. Louis had no comparable vision.

Just as the railroad transformed Chicago and diminished St. Louis, so the Internet of Things will better many of the world’s great cities, while others that ignore it will become smaller and less significant. In cities that embrace the technology, the pattern of growth will be a lot like that of the lamps of London—a few relatively simple applications at first, then a blossoming of complexity and deployment everywhere. Cities that never sleep will become cities that always think.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. He is currently a general manager at electronics maker Belkin.