bedtime story #2 by Jes, shared on Flickr

Use of the phrase ‘Smart City’ has been dominated by technology companies designing city-wide systems with embedded sensors capturing and adapting to real-time feedback. But what really makes a city smart?


The phrase ‘Smart City’ has increased in popularity as digital technology moves beyond consumer and workplace scenarios into larger, more ambitious environments. And many of the global technology companies have begun offering city-scale solutions. IBM has perhaps been the most publicly vocal though their Smarter Planet marketing campaign.

The involvement of commercial technology companies in the design of city systems is not without its critics. In 2013, urbanist Adam Greenfield published a pamphlet ‘Against the smart city’ exploring the involvement of companies such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens AG, PlanIT, and Microsoft. He dissects their marketing literature and news articles to consider the impact of embedding technology into urban spaces.

The short version: Mr Greenfield is not impressed.

All the technology companies take a fair amount of bashing over their agenda. Motives, priorities and realities are questioned. Cui bono? Who benefits from a city becoming smarter – inhabitants or overseers? The latter it would seem.

On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss the book. Who really believes what they read in marketing literature? Show me a holiday brochure with a swimming pool containing anywhere near the number of occupants as you are likely to find during your stay. Most publicly-available information will have some bias or agenda behind it that may or may not reflect reality:

“News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” – Lord Northcliffe, British publisher 1865 – 1922

On the other hand, the pamphlet provides a solid nudge that cities are about people. Us. And we should be questioning any system being implemented without our involvement. As a technologist, I found the pamphlet to be a thought-provoking read about areas I previously had not been paying much attention to. But I also remain optimistic. City governments may focus on engaging large technology suppliers for centralised systems, but grassroots initiatives are also thriving.

A great example is how an urban farmer in Canada managed to grow 50,000lbs of food on less than one acre of land, persuading people to give up poorly maintained lawns in return for a weekly basket of organic produce during the growing season. Using bicycles to transport the produce around the city and collect leftover scraps for composting. The use of sensors and real-time feedback could enable such a system to scale. Imagine if cities could become mostly self-sufficient through urban farming. Such a possibility will be dependent on technology to optimise production and distribution. The same applies to capturing and sharing renewable energy sources. In a future that may be disrupted by climate change and resource shortages, striving towards self-sufficiency could be a very smart goal for any city.

Towards the end of last year, Fast Company published an article looking at cities adopting innovative technology-driven solutions  – The Smartest Cities In The World. From established to emerging smart cities, the innovations shared a common theme: human participation and benefits. Exploiting technology to increase the prospects and quality of life for urban dwellers.

With more than half of the global population already living in cities and that proportion predicted to rise to 70% by 2030 (according to UN figures), cities that embrace technology are more likely to thrive than those constrained by traditional infrastructure designed to support a much smaller, less dense and less mobile population. It makes no sense to be against the smart city but Greenfield is right to make us think about who is involved in its design.

What makes a city smart (or not)? People do. Our decisions and actions determine outcomes. Technology is just a tool that we can wield to scale performance beyond what is possible through human effort alone.

References


bedtime story #2 by Jes, shared on FlickrFeatured image: ‘bedtime story #2’ kindly shared on Flickr by Jes. Image is of the Brisbane city skyline.

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