Mapping the Uneven Geographies of the Smart City

By Taylor Shelton

As we continue to ramp up our research efforts here at the Center for Urban Innovation, one of the topics we’re beginning to investigate is the growth of so-called ‘smart cities’ initiatives around the globe. One of the key ways that cities, especially in the United States, have done this is through their participation in technical assistance programs offered by a range of philanthropic organizations, corporations, and non-profits. Though the tangible outcomes of these programs vary, they all represent an important material engagement — in the form of exchanges of knowledge and expertise — between and amongst localities and trans-local organizations, oriented towards realizing some vision of the smart city.

Starting from a list of seven prominent technical assistance programs operating in the US and globally – the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, the Code for America fellowship program, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Delivery Teams and WhatWorksCities programs, the City Energy Project, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and the recently announced MetroLab Network supported by the White House’s smart cities initiative (of which CUI is a part) – we’ve mapped which cities have seen the greatest participation in these networks. It’s important to note that greater or lesser participation in these programs isn’t meant to imply a ranking of which cities are the ‘smartest,’ but rather to focus on how these programs are engaging more closely with some places rather than others, and how some cities have been more proactive in attempting to leverage their participation in these networks towards greater visibility.


As the map above shows, the geographic concentrations of these technical assistance programs in the US diverges in some meaningful ways from the dominant imaginary that ‘smartness’ only resides in cities like New York and San Francisco. While no US city has participated in all seven of the programs in question, Chicago has participated in six, with Atlanta, Boston and New Orleans having participated in five, and Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Seattle having participated in four. While each of these cities shares some demonstrable connection to the kinds of technology-oriented businesses and governmental initiatives at the core of the smart cities project, they also represent quite different types of cities with quite different histories and development trajectories. Given that one of the primary functions of these technical assistance programs is inter-city learning and policy transfer, it’s important to recognize the role that cities like Louisville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are playing in this process, as ‘smartness’ looks substantially different in, and coming from, these cities as opposed to more conventional technology hubs like Boston or Seattle, or even Chicago as one of the country’s largest cities.

The Bay Area’s absence is notable because of the significant jurisdictional fragmentation in the region – seven distinct municipal governments in the area were recipients of technical assistance grants from these organizations, but only San Francisco and Oakland participated in more than one program. Obviously, if aggregated to a regional level, the Bay Area as a whole would see the greatest levels of engagement with these initiatives nationwide. Similarly, the Denver metro area has had three separate municipalities participate in technical assistance programs, but none more than twice. This city/region divide is important because, as CUI Director Jennifer Clark argues in a forthcoming paper, these kinds of “third sector strategies bypass the metropolitan regionalism discourse of the past forty years and focus again on the city as the priority space for political and economic engagement.” What these kinds of initiatives might look like if operating on a broader regional scale remains an open question, as, with only a couple of exceptions where states and territories have been the recipients of these grants, municipal governments have been the exclusive conduit for these programs.

Though a few of the seven programs we surveyed are international in scope [1], outside of the US, only a handful of cities have participated in more than one of these programs, with none having participated in more than two, so the distribution is substantially less interesting at this scale. When aggregating up to the country level, Australia and Japan have had the greatest number of cities participate in these programs with seven each, while Canada and India had six cities represented, and China, Mexico and South Africa with five each. As geographer Don McNeill has written elsewhere, one noticeable trend in the global data is that “IBM has inarguably been active in far more localities, over a far wider geographical spread, than any of its competitors and is clearly focused on emerging markets.” Despite this considerable global spread of investments, these international programs still tend to be focused on some of the most industrialized and fastest growing countries outside of North America and Europe, while also focusing on those countries in closest proximity to the US where these organizations are headquartered.

Ultimately, there are a number of possible explanations for why these concentrations are where they are. Whether it’s because cities like New York and San Francisco simply aren’t trying to participate in these programs, or they aren’t being included due to a conscious effort on the part of these organizations to steer investments to other cities where the grants might make a more substantive impact, the fact remains that the geography of these programs represents an interesting opportunity to refocus our attention on how the smart city is being produced in more ‘ordinary’ cities around the United States.


[1] Only the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge and Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program are truly international in scope, though the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Teams have recently set up shop in two Israeli cities.


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