Blog  The Editor's Notebook

Cisco CGO Wim Elfrink: Why Cities Will Soon Be 'Smarter' Than We Are


Speaking one-on-one with Wim Elfrink, the first Chief Globalisation Officer to be appointed at software giant Cisco Systems, is always a delight. I must confess that I’ve only had conversations with him via Cisco’s high-end telepresence system at the corporation’s One Penn Plaza offices in Manhattan, when it’s been morning in New York and evening in Bangalore, where Elfrink often works. As he said the last time we spoke, “sometimes it’s hard to remember if I meet people in person or on telepresence,” and this is true about our own meetings. Our chats have been so vibrant, so warm, and so engaging that we may as well have been talking at a dinner party. This is testament to Cisco’s telepresence equipment, of course, but also more exemplary of Elfrink’s dynamic mind and lively, affable personality. It shines through, no matter what the forum.

Recently, we talked about the future of cities: how they can best leverage exciting new technology possibilities in terms of becoming “smarter,” via connecting people more quickly online or via mobile devices, and processing real-time data from sensors and other equipment. In other words, we explored how urban communities can better use social networking, sensors, Big Data, and sophisticated information technology infrastructures to evolve and prosper. Here’s our edited conversation.

Why are cities such a focal point for anyone interested in inspired innovation today?

Cities have always attracted people by offering three things: security, prosperity, and quality of life. Because of those three things, innovation takes place in cities. There has long been a misconception that cities aren’t safe, that they are filled with poor people, that it is hard to live in cities.
But today, security is not about brick and mortar safety, it is not about walls. Surveillance has changed that.
Cities offer more opportunities for people to improve their lives than in smaller towns, so even if they attract people who are challenged by a lack of resources, they have better chances of becoming more prosperous.
Telepresence will also help the poor have access to cities, perhaps bring them the education, work, and even healthcare possibilities that they didn’t have before, and in a way, make them part of cities. 
Also, we must remember that great cities have souls. Think of what they are known for: Paris, for art. New Orleans, for music. San Francisco, for high tech. What is so promising about social networking is that in the future, we’ll be able to connect more people with each other around these aspects of cities while we are in them—or away from them.
Finally, we should consider that the future of competition is between cities, whereas it used to be between nations. Many people today identify themselves as what city they are from, versus what country. If cities do not work to become smarter, in all aspects of the word, they will lose the competition for visitors, industries, and revenues.