As the hype for smart city fades, cities have increasingly returned to more traditional policy strategies. However, in the face of mounting challenges, cities will remain pragmatic by exploring constraints on their power and experimenting with technology. Moreover, the shift back to traditional policy is indicative of much bigger change: cities are taking control of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Our observations

  • During the last few years, the smart city buzz and its promise of high-tech solutions rose to unprecedented heights. Examples of such promising solutions to urban problems included 3D printed homes to address needs for affordable housing, traffic monitoring systems to reduce crowdedness and innovative mobility systems. However, the enthusiasm surrounding these technologies is fading, especially due to concerns over data ownership and privacy. Stalled momentum of ambitious smart city concepts indicates a broader shift in urban policy-making away from high-tech solutions and towards more traditional urban policy.
  • In April of 2016, we wrote about increased restrictions on tourism in some of the world’s most popular cities. Back then, these cities began enacting policies to restrict public space from tourists in favor of locals (e.g. Barcelona, Venice) or to limit the number of visitors allowed (e.g. Cinque Terre). Meanwhile, smart city promises to address crowdedness gained ground. However, real-time crowd monitoring systems, for instance, have yet to emerge. Hence, this summer, many cities have intensified efforts to restrict tourism with non-technological policies (e.g. Rome, Milan, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Venice).
  • In November of 2016, we wrote about cities’ measures to tackle crowdedness. Although road ricing systems, a radical measure, have been successful in tackling congestion, these sort of extreme solutions have failed to gain support. Instead, driven by residents’ preferences, cities increasingly opt to redesign street grids, primarily to accommodate bikes and reduce car traffic.
  • In the face of rising healthcare costs and decreased livability due to pollution, cities are taking the lead in improving wellbeing by rethinking infrastructure. Investment in bike-lane networks and green spaces are intended to improve both the environment and residents’ health.
  • Scarce and unaffordable housing is ingrained into every 21st century city as a result of rapid urbanization. Cities are unable to wait for ‘smart city’ solutions. So, instead of, for example, waiting for 3D home printing to materialize, cities have turned to traditional policy levers: rethinking urban space, inclusionary zoning and changing building codes.
  • Parag Khanna notes that cities, because of their smaller scales, are more adept at responding to changing realities (i.e. inequality, automation, demographic stagnation) than entire countries are. In City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age, Richard Schragger notes that cities should identify every available capacity and tool to address distributional issues and activate them.

Connecting the dots

Cities today face immense challenges, such as skyrocketing housing prices, severe congestion and deadly air pollution. As the smart city hype slowly fades, cities are returning to more traditional urban policies. This shift in policy is also indicative of much bigger change: cities are proving to be the most proactive governmental entities in facing our biggest socio-cultural challenges.
There are several reasons that explain this return to traditional policy. First, skepticism and privacy concerns over technological solutions have arisen (e.g. data ownership, visual surveillance). Second, there are limits on the power of local government varying by country. These constraints force cities to turn to traditional policy levers when technology fails to provide viable alternatives. Third, policymakers have discovered that complex political decisions must be made in order to deploy technological systems. For instance, there is no way to automatically reduce congestion by merely monitoring real-time traffic. Rather, this requires the political decision to enact a road pricing system, for instance. Fourth, because cities always deal with changing realities (e.g. housing crises, pollution) more pressingly than national governments, they are necessarily always engaged in experimental and traditional policy solutions simultaneously. For example, a city may need to redesign streets via traditional means while still exploring radical mobility plans. It is worth noting, however, that while cities are indeed currently turning away from radical technological

alternatives, this is merely one phase of disappointment in smart city concepts. In the Gartner hype cycle, smart city technologies have entered the phase of disillusionment. Hence, it becomes ever more important to detect signals that indicate a renewed momentum in interest for these technologies, especially since cities, more so than national governments, are quicker and more willing to experiment with technology (hence, the initial smart city hype and subsequent privacy backlash). Amid this changing urban policy perspective is the more critical shift of cities taking control in responding to important challenges. Indeed, turning to traditional policy for the housing crisis, congestion, pollution and health signals that cities are intensifying efforts to tackle the most pressing challenges of humanity. The political conflict in the U.S. over “sanctuary cities” shows that cities are gaining influence and becoming more assertive vis-à-vis- national governments. Furthermore, the urban-rural divide shows that cities are hotspots of progressive politics. In turn, progressive national political leadership, such as the new wave of social democrats in the U.S.), could boost momentum for cities in their efforts to take control over pressing issues such as inequality. All in all, these developments suggest that cities are increasingly taking control over major societal issues in favor of national governments, as is further exemplified by the emergence of (inter)national city networks like G40 and C40.


  • Since cities will increasingly take control of some of our most pressing issues, it will become much more important to understand their scope of power in relation to national governments. It will also be important to explore what factors attract people and capital to cities. Understanding both of these items may prove challenging, especially given that they differ widely by country. Expecting a pushback from cities against the federal government, the Brookings Institution recently called for a sharper understanding of the current extents and limits of city powers in the U.S.
  • Opportunities could shift to construction, architecture and engineering firms as cities eschew tech solutions in favor of traditional ones as they redesign themselves to meet pressing challenges.