Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

Anthony M. Townsend

320 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013

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In his new book, SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for A New Utopia, urban planner and technology forecaster Anthony Townsend investigates the historic collision of two global trends: rapid urbanization and the spread of ubiquitous computing. In this excerpt, he explains how the humble mobile phone has become the best-selling consumer electronic device in history, and how it is bringing new economic and social opportuntiies to the burgeoning slums of the developing world.

A Computer for the Rest of Us

In 2005 MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte announced an ambitious project, One Laptop Per Child, with a bold goal: to deploy millions of laptops to children in the developing world, for less than $100 per unit. By 2012 the group had shipped some 2.5 million computers to more than forty countries.10 Despite many setbacks, the project was considered a success by many, having spurred the development of a whole new class of low-cost laptops—netbooks.

Yet in the same time span, Nokia and its competitors sold over 2.5 billion mobile phones, nearly doubling the number of mobile subscribers worldwide from just over 3 billion in 2006 to 5.9 billion in 2011.11 The transformation of the world’s poorest continent is astounding. In Uganda, for instance, there are now more mobile phones than lightbulbs.12 “Half of Africa’s one billion population has a mobile phone,” declared a 2011 headline in London’s Sunday newspaper The Observer, “and not just for talking.”13 And in 2012, the rich world finally delivered an affordable computer to the developing world, when a price war in Kenya between South Korea’s Samsung and China’s Huawei drove smartphone prices there under $100.14 One industry analyst believes that half the population of Africa will own one by 2017.15 All across the globe, smartphones, rather than cheap laptops, are destined to be the true face of ubiquitous computing.

The economic impact of mobile phones has been transformative for the world’s urban poor. A 2009 World Bank study of 120 countries found that for every ten percentage points increase in the penetration of mobile phones, GDP increased by 0.8 percent. The bank’s chief economist, Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang, argues that “Mobile phones have made a bigger difference to the lives of more people, more quickly, than any previous technology. They have spread the fastest and have become the single most transformative tool for development.”16 For Nancy Odendaal, an urban planner who studies technology use in the townships of South Africa, “enabling livelihoods is the killer app” for these humble devices.17 They have become indispensable tools for work, education, and health.

Developing countries have long struggled to build ubiquitous wired networks. In many places, as soon as telephone lines were laid, they would be torn out by thieves and sold as scrap copper. But wireless networks can be built faster and securely, allowing the benefits of connectivity to be quickly brought to large numbers of people. While the cost of building fiber-optic networks is thousands of dollars per home, delivering broadband wirelessly can cost one-fiftieth that much.18 As a result, 80 percent of the world’s mobile broadband subscribers are in developing countries.19 Wireless is the infrastructure of inclusion—nothing else approaches the speed and cost with which we can now blanket entire cities with low-cost connectivity.

With the basic infrastructure of smartphones and mobile broadband in place, there has been an explosion in services aimed at the poor. Several innovation hot spots have emerged where start-ups are translating business ideas born on the desktop Web of the rich world into SMS-based services for megacities’ poor.

In India, where one in six of the world’s slum dwellers lives, mobile phones are creating tangible opportunities for work and education. Bangalore-based Babajob, in India’s Silicon Valley, is an SMS-based social network for the millions of people working in the country’s informal sector—day laborers, maids, drivers, and so on. One tech blog described the service as “LinkedIn for villages.”20 Another Bangalore nonprofit, Mapunity, emulates Google’s sophisticated mapping services using people’s mobile devices to sense traffic speed through phone movements and taxi radios. It then returns real-time traffic alerts via SMS.21 South Africa’s Dr. Math provides a tutoring service via SMS. Its American equivalent, the Khan Academy, requires an expensive laptop and high-speed Internet connection to access its recorded video lectures and chat rooms.22

In Kenya mobiles are the backbone of a new branchless banking system that is bringing financial services to millions for the first time. M-Pesa, named after the Swahili word for money, launched in 2007 and is now used by over 15 million people. Instead of building out a costly network of branches, or even automated teller machines, M-Pesa uses small retailers as its tellers. Through a secure process that confirms the electronic transfer in seconds, customers can withdraw or deposit cash with a few clicks. But as more of the country moves to electronic transfers, many transactions never even materialize as cash, flowing through the system entirely electronically. Safaricom, the country’s dominant wireless carrier, created M-Pesa as a public-service initiative with a million-pound grant from the British government, and never expected it to turn a profit. Instead, it broke even in just two years and now delivers nearly one-sixth of the firm’s revenues. During peak use, over two hundred transactions per second and 20 percent of Kenya’s GDP streams through the M-Pesa network.23 It is being rolled out across India, where it could eventually bring banking to hundreds of millions of poor people.

Most of the world’s cities are now lit up by some kind of wireless service. But as Ericsson, a leading supplier of network equipment, points out, “Reaching the next billion subscribers means expanding to rural off-grid areas.”24 The company has developed highly efficient solar-powered cell towers for use in outlying areas where there is no electric-power infrastructure. On the consumer side, in 2010 Vodafone launched a $32 solar-powered phone in India.25 Presumably, the arrival of modern telecommunications in the countryside might provide new local economic opportunities and slow migration to cities. But it could just as likely accelerate migration by plugging ever-larger rural areas into the social and economic life of the city. One study that tracked migration through mobile phones in Kenya uncovered an astonishingly high turnover rate for new arrivals—on average, newcomers during a year-long study period in 2008–2009 stayed in Kibera, the capital’s largest slum, just less than two months.26 Anthropologist Mirjam de Bruijn has documented Bedouin caravans in the southern Sahara that have altered their historic trade routes to periodically pass through areas of mobile phone service.27 Even indigenous peoples want to stay connected in a global economy.

Development organizations are just beginning to wrap their thinking around the tremendous opportunity for development that mobile phones present. Richard Heeks, the professor of development informatics, sees a marked shift in the ICT4D movement from PCs to mobile devices. “We stand at a fork in the Internet access road,” he wrote at the conclusion of his 2008 article. “We can keep pushing down the PC-based route when less than 0.5 percent of African villages so far have a link this way. Or we can jump ship to a technology that has already reached many poor communities.”28 It isn’t just scholars and activists calling for a new model. In January 2013, when Google chairman Eric Schmidt spent a week visiting a handful of booming African cities, he saw firsthand the role of technology as a tool for economic opportunity. “This new generation expects more, and will use mobile computing to get it,” he reported.29

Over the next decade, mobiles promise to become even cheaper and more pervasive. Assuming even a modest rate of replacement and a continued drop in smartphone prices, it is very likely that a decade from now half of the world’s people—including hundreds of millions of the urban poor—will be walking around with devices that are essentially supercomputers in their pockets. Broadband wireless networks with data speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second or more will light up entire cities, including their slums.

But mobiles aren’t simply new economic tools for the world’s urban poor. Increasingly, mobile networks themselves are becoming observatories where we can watch in real time how people move, how cities grow, the quality of life, and economic activity.

Excerpted from Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia by Anthony M. Townsend. Copyright © 2013 by Anthony M. Townsend. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.