Are smart cities not so smart after all?

Are smart cities not so smart after all?

You may have missed it, because you had more important things to do, such as worrying about your mortgage, choice of kids' school, extreme weather events or the Syrian conflict.

Earlier in 2013, the chief executive of Toyota Motors mentioned plans to begin eradicating the use of terbium from all its cars. This casual mark was in fact a major statement of intent by a forward-looking business leader. Why so?

Terbium is used in the magnets of electric motors in Toyota's hybrid vehicles. The problem is that terbium is a rare earth element, also used in computers and mobile phones. It is increasingly in such short supply that many analysts predict demand to outstrip supply in a couple of years.

Worries are so acute that the world's biggest producer -- China -- is now beginning to restrict exports, resulting in the U.S. re-opening previously uneconomical domestic mines. In short, this remark was about ensuring the resilience of Toyota's supply chain and future competitiveness.

So what? A few less cars on the road is not a bad thing, right? After all, even electric ones do nothing to counter congestion, right? Maybe, maybe not.

We have all seen the megatrend figures: In an era of a global population boom and rapid urbanization, combined with fast-changing weather and diminishing natural resources, "smart" cities that harness the latest technologies in transport, building and utilities can provide a platform to decouple consumption from growth.

But how is the ensuing mushroom of smart city initiatives around the globe factoring in the type of terbium concerns raised by Toyota?

Crossing the wires vs. connecting the dots

Recently, Infrangilis attempted to map the various smart city initiatives around the world -- led by networks of cities, big business, academia and think-tanks -- or some combination of the above. The goal was to understand the strategic intent (resource security, cost effectiveness, poverty alleviation, etc.) and type of intervention (redesign production processes, reduce consumption, recover materials, etc.) of the variety of initiatives in the marketplace, with a view to identifying and filling possible gaps that need to be filled.

This mapping exercise was part of a wider study to be released later in 2013. Initiatives included Connected Commuting (New Cities Foundation), Embarq (WRI), Low Carbon City Alliance, Smart City Stakeholder Platform (European Commission) and Urban Age Program (London School of Economics), among others.

Illustration of abstract sphere connected with white dots provided by Alexei Tacu via Shutterstock. 

We stopped counting when we crossed 50. It was like painting San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. By the time we thought we had an answer, a couple of new smart cities initiatives were launched.

No set of initiatives we examined had a focus on rare earth elements, though. There was a clear bias toward energy consumption in buildings and transport, lowering carbon emissions and reducing operating costs.

In short, the various smart city initiatives appear to be over-focused on connecting the wires, at the expense of joining up the dots when it comes to systemic change.

Standards for sustainable urbanization

This raises a very important question. Is it still appropriate to let a thousand flowers bloom to connected commuting simulate innovation on the smart city concept, or is it now time to bring order to the marketplace, through standards for sustainable urbanization?

Yes, standards are boring, but they also play a pivotal role in guaranteeing quality outcomes, like they do in food hygiene or children's toys. So why not do the same for smart cities?

Like it has in the past, the U.N. can and should play a vital convening role here to ensure different voices from the private sector, state and civil society are heard in formulating a universally recognized approach. The newly convened Sustainable Development Solutions Network is a good place to let this important work begin.

This article originally appeared on CSRwire Talkback, where the author is a regular contributor.