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If We Want to Live in a Future of Smart Cities, We Need to Embrace Open Source Today

Regardless of how you choose to look at it, smart cities bring with them a host of unique advantages and opportunities – essentially all at the exact same time.

People now expect a great deal from the urban areas they choose to live in. They want expansive, robust access to digital services. They’ve shown themselves more than willing to embrace things like self-service portals. Even city officials are regularly leaning on modern technology to not only increase the engagement that people feel with the places they live but to build trust in their local governments as well.

Yet at the same time, we’re also at something of a precipice. Far too many artificial “walled gardens” are being put up when it comes to technologies like the Internet of Things – a situation that attempts to lock people into one ecosystem or another. For true smart cities to thrive, we need to go in the opposite direction – and that begins by embracing the benefits of open source as soon as we can.

The Power of Open Source: Why It Matters

To get an idea of why open source solutions are so integral, consider the situation that has played out over the last decade with consumer-focused smart homes.

While a large number of “smart” solutions like shades, thermostats, HVAC systems, and more have been developed, you’ve also seen things separated into essentially a few different camps. Apple users have HomeKit devices, for example. They have a (relatively) small number of options to choose from when it comes to which devices they bring into their environment, but in exchange for that, they get options that “just work” – something the company has always made a point of pride.

There are also the Google and Amazon Alexa ecosystems. They each bring with them entirely different sets of devices but offer somewhat little in the way of cross-environment compatibility.

Yes, if you purchase a set of Hue lights you can talk to them using both Siri and Alexa if you prefer. But manufacturers embracing all three of these smart home ecosystems is exceptionally rare. More often than not, you have to make a decision at the beginning of your smart home journey. You choose HomeKit or Alexa or Google and, at that point, you’re locked in. If a great new device comes out that isn’t compatible with your smart home, you’re essentially out of luck.

It’s a disappointment for consumers… and could be potentially catastrophic when it comes to smart cities.

These days, the public doesn’t just demand the fastest service possible. They want as many options as are available to them. They want to choose which platforms they interact with and they want to live life on their own terms.

You simply can’t get there without open-source technology behind it all.

In an over-arching sense, open-source is exactly what it sounds like – a method of software and hardware development where the source code is made widely available to all. If you want to take that code, modify it, and put it back out into the world, you’re free to do so – which is where the building blocks of innovation begin to take hold.

If local governments begin to embrace a “walled garden” structure when it comes to smart cities, all they’re really going to be doing is stifling innovation. They’ll be saying to their people “here are your options, take them or leave them.” We can trust that those officials will take our concerns and criticisms to heart… but history has shown that this isn’t necessarily the safest bet to make.

Instead, the options we’re given in terms of smart cities need to be seen as the beginning of something much bigger. One where the very citizens these cities are designed to serve aren’t just free to interact with the technology but modify and improve it.

This is especially true when it comes to important topics like data security. Open-source software tends to be more secure than closed-off, proprietary counterparts because there are countless people looking over the code instead of a select few. Vulnerabilities are discovered immediately and corrected just as quickly. This, too, will become a pressing concern as smart cities become a ubiquitous part of our lives.

In the end, open-source absolutely must become the future as urban areas begin to seriously think about and develop these large-scale tech-driven areas. There needs to be deeper accountability not just in terms of the businesses providing the technology, but the governments passing it along to their citizens, too. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen – but if we want to live in a future of cities that are truly as smart as they claim to be, it’s beyond clear that this is the direction we need to head ineffective immediately.

 

Stephen L

Stephen L

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