When people talk about smart cities, there seems to be an implicit assumption that those who get the concept and are able to lead the change must be demographically young. The same applies with other recent technology-driven phenomena, such as open government or government 2.0. Datapaloozas. hackatons, hangouts, unconferences: people who are over 40 can be barely seen and elder people are allowed only if they are recognized as innovators or as part of the audience to be inducted into the “new way” of doing business.
Last Friday I attended the first public hearing for Milan as a smart city. There were several speakers, from cities, associations, enterprises, to discuss various aspects of a smart city program, what technologies are required, the importance of alliances, the many examples around the world, the networking mechanisms among leading cities and so forth.
When I was about to be overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu, Piero Bassetti, a 85 year old veteran entrepreneur and politician, took the floor and in a few minutes, with incredible acumen, nailed the reason why smart cities often turned into little more than a talkshop, a pilot or a showcase for technology. He basically said that people focus on what is a smart city, and how to make it smart, but not on why smartness is needed. Every city has its own vocation, problems, peculiarities: comparing across city is pointless and the key is to understand whether and how smartness can help the city strengthen its vocation or solving one of its top priority problems.
His message resounded in the room after a stream of previous speeches, especially by representatives of city associations, had delivered little else than rankings, comparisons and endless lists of “smart” projects.
Ironically Italy has just re-elected its 87 year old president after a short competition in the parliament with two other candidates, both over or close to 80 yo. Many commentators flag this as a sign of a country that is unable to change and innovate- And yet, the fact that the most senior speaker in a traditionally younger and geeky environment has also been the most disruptive and inspirational may prove them wrong.