Why IoT has Failed Cities.

And how we might help it succeed.

10 min readNov 29, 2021

Ok look, if we’re being honest, IoT is stuck.

Help! IoT is stuck!!

Sure sure there’s these cool innovations that have popped up here and there in the consumer market. Azure IoT (where I work) recently partnered with Keurig on the K-Supreme Plus® SMART Single Serve Coffee Maker. It’s a fantastic coffee maker. I have a bunch of Kasa Smart Bulbs. My little sister ‘borrowed’ three of them and messes around with the colors so it looks like she’s running a little underground rave in her bedroom. They’re like, ~hip and cool~.

Consumer IoT!

In the Business(TM) world, IoT has been making serious waves. Like we’re talking The Great Wave Off Kanagawa waves. There’s Digital Twins of Office Buildings and apparently the Metaverse is not just a Spider Man thing now. Smart Parking helps parking lot managers track usage and helps you find an open parking spot rather than driving around incessantly and getting false hope when you think it’s an open spot but really it’s just a tiny lil’ car.

Business IoT!

Industrial IoT has also been shining. So many applications! It’s honestly too easy. Predictive maintenance? Improving Operational Efficiency? Smart warehouses? Say less.


Ok but Smart Cities? IoT in Cities? IoT just isn’t there when it comes to cities. From Rio De Janeiro to Songdo, Korea, Smart City initiatives using IoT have fallen flat. If you read any of the leading books on Smart Cities and Smart City Tech you quickly realize we’re still hoping for winning solutions. The most obvious way to confirm this is simple — if IoT revolutionized city life, we would all know about it.

Why did they put this city on a platter being held by some god???

IoT suffers from Confirmation Bias.

IoT has been around since the turn of the century, and yet it hasn’t meaningfully improved the lives of people living in cities. Smart lightbulbs and Wi-Fi connected cameras were just supposed to be the tip of the iceberg, but the rest of the IoT revolution has yet to emerge. Why is that?

Because IoT is an extension of statistics.

And we know statistics are fragile and fraught. They can be manipulated and twisted and oftentimes are just proxies for the existing biases of the organizations that use them. We know this as Confirmation Bias. In the academic Stat community confirmation bias, its implications, and the “objectivity” of statistics is constantly being discussed. A paper published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society titled “Beyond subjective and objective in statistics” tries to break down the criticism of objectivity and subjectivity in statistics in favor of more granular terminology: transparency, consensus, impartiality, correspondence to observable reality, awareness of multiple perspectives, context dependence, and stability.

IoT falls victim to weak statistical practices and confirmation bias. Sensors collect the data you want them to collect. Tools are built to serve companies effectively. Data isn’t collected to tell a trucking company “trucking contributes significantly to the climate crisis through greenhouse gas emissions”. Data collection tools are also limited. Ultimately while IoT cracks open the world to be quantized and analyzed, it is just creating proxy tools for observable reality.

To drive meaningful change, IoT initiatives must be coupled with field specific expertise. We’re talking Urban Planners or practitioners in Public Health or Zookeepers. (You laugh, but the Zoo Internet of Things has the potential to be a multi bajillion dollar industry, according to monkeys.) By coupling sensor data collection and processing with awareness of multiple perspectives and an understanding of context dependence, we can minimize confirmation bias.

Field specific expertise also helps to localize and shape the solutions necessary. For example, if you were a carpenter, you wouldn’t use a sander to cut a wood block, and you wouldn’t use a miter saw to smooth a chamfer. The sander and the saw are both specific tools for the trade that have been further specialized over time to optimally serve their roles in a wood shop. Smart City efforts involving IoT are still highly focused around monetization. They are driven by the companies that are trying to sell tools. Tech initiatives in cities must be given the time to grow and morph, organically fitting IoT technology into the gaps for which it is best suited.

Treating IoT like some siloed phenomenon is the biggest mistake a company could make. Your temperature and humidity sensor will not help guide the future of transportation policy. It’ll just tell you if it’s cold or wet out. Siloed knowledge is a mistake that companies believe they are not making. But the spoiler is that it’s a mistake most are making. It’s such an easy mistake to make! All you have to do is start setting OKRs and PBIs and Sprint Planning and oh my god we are behind schedule and need to make cuts and and and and… there’s too much to do! How can anyone have the time to cultivate partnerships with field experts who are also busy doing their own tasks? It feels pointless.

Look. I know how the world works. It’s not ideal. Nothing is ideal. Priorities get cut and you have a fiduciary duty to your shareholders or something like that. But companies have got to stop letting their marketing department hype the tech while their financial department pigeonholes innovation into what is projected to be most profitable ASAP. That’s how you create knowledge silos and how you end up driving toward building solutions that are simultaneously too specific and too broad at the same time. Trust me, I’ve been there. Once the development team is stretched thin, something like say… engaging with field experts and collaborating on prototypes, becomes secondary. The engineers need to fix their bugs and handle their tickets and get their features in, the managers need to meet their goals by their deadlines, and money needs to be made.

I get it. But that doesn’t make it ok! And it’s costly. Organizations that prioritize working with field experts will spend less time moving back and forth between hyper-specific enterprise IoT solutions, even if that means a slower initial monetization rate of their solutions. But their patience and diligence will pay off in the long run. They will end up with an IoT suite that resembles a high-quality toolshed that fully leverages the strength of cloud-connected sensor tech and novel data processing.

A big bet on big tech in big cities requires a shift toward incorporating the necessary subject matter experts and collaboratively designing solutions. This way cities won’t waste millions on IoT sensors that no one cares about and that are ultimately abandoned, and companies won’t work extremely hard to land major projects only to have them die a death of a thousand little cuts. Cities can leverage IoT to create dense, community-oriented spaces that bring people together and encourage vibrant life. Companies can design the sensors and data processing suites that make it easy to maintain the system in perpetuity, until it becomes as ubiquitous as clean water.

Smart Cities require $$$, and idk if we’ve got it.

Ok but there’s another roadblock in the way of City IoT and it’s money. When the market for IoT is local governments, funding is slow to come by and paltry in comparison to the private sphere. Local governments have their own priorities and limited funding, after all. Individuals want nice things, and so there is a luxury market for IoT in Smart Bulbs and Smart Cameras for home security. While companies are driven by profit, these days cities are often driven by fear and attempts to create security through militarized and bloated police agencies. This is why while Industrial IoT continues to rapidly innovate City IoT has stalled.

It’s important to repeat my point about city spending. In America we have systematically morphed the spending of government at all levels around defense and safety. In local government incumbent city-dwellers use their representation to bludgeon changes that might dilute their civic power or personal wealth (often tied up in housing). As a result city burses have often become a proxy for the local police, shedding massive portions of the public purse toward policing. (This isn’t an opinion about policing in America, just a fact as it relates to the financial viability of IoT in cities.) Follow the money and it’s clear that the focus just isn’t on making cities a better place for all people.

So the blame for IoT’s failure in cities is not wholly on the backs of the corporations, startups and researchers that are driving novel innovations in the space. It is partially, but it is also a problem of motivation, and that blame is spread between many stakeholders, including city governments and also including you, the individual, who helps shape local government.

Local Government $$$ → Police + Safety. But university $$$? There’s hope for Smart Cities yet.

One potential ray of hope for IoT in cities is universities. Universities are large and well-funded and often in cities. For example, in Houston University of Houston, TSU, and Rice University respectively control a significant portion of the dense, people-occupied space in the city. In New York, NYU and Columbia have become major power-brokers in the real estate market. Boston is almost a proxy for all the universities contained within it.

Boston is to it’s universities what Alphabet is to Google

The existence of large, well-funded universities in cities offer a disruptive force to local governments since their motivations are different. The majority of their budget does not go toward policing. Their principle outcome is not the security of their residents and protection of resident assets. Their researchers are already working diligently on developing meaningful solutions to complex problems. That’s kind of their whole schtick.

Therefore if IoT is to become meaningfully influential in American cities, it will start on the university campus. Universities can leverage the privileged position to enact change that benefits the greater public on a local level. I’ll be honest, they don’t really do that most of the time. Say what you will about universities being “left-wing radical breeding grounds” or whatever else is the Breitbart talking point these days, they are often elite institutions focused on growing their own prestige and improving and expanding their own campus. But… But! Because they are hubs of cutting edge research, and have the proper mechanisms to interface with government entities for funding, which is needed for municipal projects, they hypothetically have the potential to redefine the cities they are apart of for the better.

An aside: China is honestly great at Smart Cities.

Important note! Because some of you might be thinking this, “What about China??? China has amazing technology!! The cities are clean and safe.” Yes. Yes. I’m not an expert on Chinese city infrastructure, or the history of Smart technology in China, but let me give my two cents.

Putting the community above the self is culturally more popular in China than in America, and so it’s definitely a lot easier for smart city initiatives to succeed. A Smart City empowers all members of the community, which comes at a cost to certain individuals, particularly at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Cities are safe. Parks are clean. Elders share in community. Cities are clean. Strong public transportation networks support individual car ownership to connect individuals and communities efficiently.

But while there are some clear benefits and Chinese cities are adopting Smart City policies, oftentimes IoT applications in these cities are not designed to make people’s lives better, but make sure people fall in line. Cameras use facial recognition to identify individuals and punish rule-breakers. Smart payment systems and tracking allows the government to possess a highly accurate digital footprint of every individual. It is not what I want to build as a designer of IoT applications. it does the opposite of what a good Smart City should do — empower individuals within the community to live better lives in their own unique ways.

So that’s why IoT has failed cities.

Hopefully now you understand the deeper levels of why IoT has failed cities. It’s a complex problem! Of course it is! Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a problem. And honestly, I’m not too hopeful about Smart Cities. I’m very worried IoT is going to end up as tool of repression, a tool of control, and a tool wielded to legitimize and patch flawed systems like America’s obsession with the car.

I hate any renderings of futuristic cities

I’m pessimistic. But! But. The first step to fixing a problem is identifying the problem. And maybe one day IoT can be like the Energy Grid or Sewage Systems or Water Treatment Plants or whatever else you absolutely rely on to go about your day but you never really appreciate because it just does it’s job really well and everything’s great. But we’ve got a long way to go, and a lot to overcome in the process.




Software Engineer passionate about the future of cities. Currently building libraries for Azure IoT.