AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

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8 responses to “Tech Insurrection”

  1. Andrew Moore Avatar
    Andrew Moore

    Interesting article, Jim.

    It reminds me of the bottom-up, market-driven approach to public transportation found in some developing countries. When you have been around the seemingly Herculean or Sisyphean tasks of creating public transportation in the US long enough, you begin to wonder if we could learn something from the developing world, where these things seem to pop up organically.

  2. billsblots Avatar

    Good use of developing/ed wireless data technology. Installing a mesh network among willing contributing participants is not difficult, technically. Let’s hope they have allowed for a big enough aggregate pipe to feed everyone.

    Electrical distribution networks are a different animal altogether. The electrical grid might be the single biggest contributor to the betterment of the general population of any invention in the history of the human race. It is somewhat fragile and some transformer replacement parts are woefully (inadequately) stocked, and a regional and interregional physical destruction of key components would keep electricity off line for weeks and weeks and even months to many millions, even 10s of millions. Wireless distribution of electricity has been envisioned by Tesla and others and, of course, cannot be done to meet the community needs.

  3. larryg Avatar

    certain amount of take-for-granted naivete … as important as wireless internet is – things like electricity per Bill Botts but other things like water/sewer, trash removal, and roads/rail/air/transport.

    and internet, big pipe internet is not “free” contrary to popular belief by some.

    The fast food burger or flat screen TV and just about everything in your house or apartment do not get delivered wireless it does not come on a self-driving 18-wheeler – yet.

    and contrary to popular notion, will not likely be created by 3d printers nor driverless trucks anytime this generation.

    we need the visionaries and optimism though…

    but we’re sorta at the 19 century stage where we got this fancy indoor plumbing bathroom but we don’t really know where the pipes go…once they leave the house.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Let’s see – people are going to attach line of sight data communication devices to their roofs. These devices are going to communicate with antennas on towers and create a network of WiFi zones? This will provide resiliency in the event of a hurricane?

    When the hurricane comes the line of sight devices won’t work because there will be too much interference from the rain that always accompanies a hurricane (how well does satellite TV work in a run of the mill thunderstorm?).

    When the hurricane ends the line of sight devices won’t work because those devices (along with the antennas they were pointing at) will have been blown into the ocean by …. wait for it …. the hurricane. Heck of a job, Townsey.

    Meanwhile, if this Rube Goldberg plan were ever put into place big tech companies like Cisco wouldn’t make money because …. the so-called “city hackers” will mine their own metal and build backyard chip fabrication plants rather than buy the WiFi kit, rooftop radios and tower based antennas from … wait for it …. Cisco?

    Jim, not only do you misspell Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s name you also fail to post a link to the online debate. It can be found here –

    In that debate you will read this gem from Mr. Townsend:

    “Essentially, Mr Wladawsky-Berger argues that without corporations playing a leading role in designing and managing the infrastructure of smart cities, they will never live up to the hype. Here, he overlooks the history of his own industry. The fundamental guts of the internet and the web were first developed and deployed at scale by universities, start-ups and loosely knit volunteer networks with very little industry involved. Only later were these breakthroughs exploited commercially. His alma mater, IBM, has made a fortune on the back of open-source software, much of it funded by government. (Note that the domain was not registered until 1986, well into the internet era.)”

    Mr. Townsend cherry picks technology history in a lame attempt to make his point. He is able to remember the history of the internet but is apparently unable to recall the history of the transistor (invented at Bell Labs), modern integrated circuit (Texas Instruments), fiber optic data communication (Telefunken), mechanical punched card tabulator – predecessor of the modern computer (IBM), artificial intelligence – self learning software (IBM), FORTRAN (IBM), report program generator (IBM), modern DRAM (IBM), fractal geometry (IBM), Data encryption Standard – DES (IBM), Universal Product Code – UPC (IBM), laser printing (Xerox), Reduced Instruction Set Computing – RISC (IBM), Excimer laser surgical procedure – basis for LASIK surgery (IBM),Trellis Coded Modulation – TCM (IBM). Etc, etc, etc.

    Yeah, IBM hasn’t invented much. I guess that’s why they are awarded the largest number of patents year after year and have seen their researchers awarded five Nobel prizes for the work they did while employed at IBM.

    As for Mr. Townsend’s claim that, “His alma mater, IBM, has made a fortune on the back of open-source software, much of it funded by government.”, all I can say is “really?”. As the former CEO of an open source software company I’d be very interested to hear Mr. Townsend’s estimate of the percentage of open source software in use today that was actually “funded by government”. As a start I would suggest that Mr. Townsend research the development of UNIX (AT&T) and trace its impact on MINIX and Linux. He might then move on to researching where EF Codd was working when he wrote the seminal paper, “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks”. Hint: IBM. I guess by Townsend’s half-assed standards of logic any government use of any relational database can be chalked up to work where “much of it was funded by IBM”.

    This column and its contents were infantile and a discredit to the reputation of Bacon’s Rebellion.

    Note: I work for IBM. My opinions are mine and mine alone.

    1. Ouch!

      Thanks for correcting my mis-spelling of Wladawsky-Berger’s name. Very careless on my part. I deserve a kick in the butt for that.

      Some of your comments are right on target, although I would take issue with your characterization of the column as “infantile and a discredit to the reputation of Bacon’s Rebellion.” As proof of the fact that many give Townsend credence, I offer the debate arranged by The Economist Magazine between Townsend and Wladawsky-Berger. As I recall, The Economist pronounced the debate more or less a draw. Was that debate a discredit to the reputation of The Economist? (Maybe you, with your rhetorical skills honed on Bacon’s Rebellion, should have represented IBM instead!)

      The fact is, Townsend is creating quite a stir. There are many people who think like him in the smart cities movement. It will not surprise you, Don, that many people in the left-leaning world of government, not-for-profits and the environmental movement have a knee-jerk distrust of big American corporations like IBM. In your new job, I’m sure you’ll encounter that attitude with some frequency.

      In defense of my coverage, I pressed Townsend with some skeptical questions. Perhaps you noticed this line — “When pressed for examples of transformative, bottom-up technologies, however, Townsend concedes that not many have emerged yet.”

      I also asked him if he saw *any* role for the big corporations that he criticizes, and he confessed that he did — they could “take grassroots solutions, build platforms to support them, take those innovations and perfect and scale them”… which is not anything (that I recall) he said in either his book or The Economist debate.

      One last point: In your rebuttal of Townsend, you never addressed one of the key points in his book — the futility of modeling anything as complex as a city. Of all his criticisms, that strikes me as the weightiest. Would you care to defend IBM’s decision support systems?

      1. DJRippert Avatar


        There are plenty of people who are anti-corporation in one way or another. Some make logical arguments for their way of thinking. Richard Stallman’s defense of free software is one such example.

        The problem with Townsend is that his arguments demonstrate a profound lack of competence. He seems quite willing to wade into areas he doesn’t understand and pontificate. And you seem quite willing to help publicize that uninformed rhetoric. All of which defers the alarm going off on his 15 minutes of fame.

        One example you should have considered – “The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane”. Jim – seriously? A network based on physical devices being attached to the roofs of homes will withstand a hurricane? Perhaps Mr. Townsend will be tempted to seek the obvious safety of a rooftop the next time he is in the path of a hurricane. He and his flying antennas can become the scarecrow’s apprentice in Oz.

        In the Economist debate Townsend continues his breathtaking display of ignorance by criticizing the 11th company in history to register a .com domain name for being slow to embrace the internet by citing the date of its domain name registration.

        There are only so many stupid things people can say before everybody needs to stop listening. Townsend is well over his limit in my book.

        As for decision support systems – that’s a very generic term. As you might imagine, I have no interest in spending any money buying a book written by a man who babbles about technology but doesn’t understand internet domains. I’d rather just burn my money – at least that would keep me warm for a while.

        Let’s broaden the topic to the question of using software to manage complexity in the furtherance of some worthy goal. Cities are complex. So is the human body and so is cancer.

        “Dr. Robert Darnell, CEO, President and Scientific Director of the NYGC, stated regarding the difficulties of targeted treatment that “The real challenge has been making sense of massive quantities of genetic data and translating research findings into better treatments and outcomes for patients.”

        This is where Watson excels, applying its substantial computing power to observe gene sequence variations between ordinary and cancerous tumors. It consults clinical records and medical literature as it does so, swiftly giving doctors a variety of treatments to choose from, tailored to the patient’s individual instance of cancer.

        Watson’s ability to achieve this task at a much higher speed than is otherwise possible, will prove to be greatly beneficial to those suffering from glioblastoma, as the general prognosis (depending on the spread of the cancer) is often less than one year. Ordinarily a significant portion of this time is spent interpreting the data manually to divine the best course of treatment. However, with Watson’s computing power, this can be achieved in a fraction of the time, allowing clinicians to begin life-saving treatment much sooner.”

        Jim, I hope you live a long, happy and healthy life. However, if the unthinkable happens and you find yourself seriously ill, I’ll give you a bit of advice:

        Seek help from doctors working with serious cognitive science tools like IBM’s Watson rather than from Anthony “what’s a domain name” Townsend and his army of “city hackers”.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Frankly, the more I consider Mr. Townsend’s absurd and ill-researched arguments, the more I have to wonder how an experienced editor and journalist like Jim Bacon could ever stoop to referencing the man in a serious article.

    Let’s take one more “Townsend-ism”: “Note that the domain was not registered until 1986, well into the internet era”

    Fascinating. I guess we should conclude that IBM was very late to the party in registering its domain name. Only one teensy little problem – no domain names were registered until 1985. By the end of 1985 a whopping six companies in the world had registered domain names.

    Of the 265M domain names registered today, IBM holds the 11th oldest .com domain name. MIT’s .edu domain was registered in 1985 – “well into the internet era”.

    Jim – this Townsend guy needs to be thoroughly fact checked if you are going to print anything he says or reference anything he writes.

  6. Would you think that someone that knows how to use a toilet would know how to design water/sewer systems for a city?

    how about electricity or fire protection or transit?

    do we think that someone that uses their cellphone 30 times a day knows how to design a cell tower network?

    why would something even think that?

    I call this a problem with someone – who doesn’t know that they do not know.

    internet-based systems are highly complex critters and it’s a credit to the industry that it’s make the use of it so user friendly but in the process, it’s promoted a naivete akin to the belief that if you know how to flush a toilet, you’d know how to design a sewer system.

    we have folks who now know how to read a few internet websites to determine the “truth” about global warming that people with PHDs and decades of experience have “flubbed’. One guy reading a few blurbs on the internet can not only figure it out but determine that most of the PHD scientists are frauds.

    the average person has no clue how someone calling their cell phone can “find” them at a particular cell tower..out of thousands, they just assume it “works” and further, they could offer advice on how to make it work “better”.

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