A new dawn, or the wrong problem?
We live in the ‘smart’ era, and we hear so much now about ‘smart’ – from smart watches to smart homes, it seems every part of human life is entering the era of smart.  Take the ‘smart’ phone for instance. We know what they are, we probably own one and we live each day with more and more use of it across more and more parts of our lives. And yet it’s easy to forget that smart phones have barely been on the market for a decade.

One of the most interesting areas for us as a team is how the era of ‘smart’ really relates to better thinking. And one of the most interesting areas to that regard is that of smart cities.

It’s easy to see why there is such an allure from governments about the need to create ‘smart cities.’ After all our cities have been shaped by the industrial revolution. They are complex machines that bring together people to facilitate the production and movement of goods and ideas. But they are also highly reactive mechanisms that grow rapidly, and at times chaotically, all too often without a guiding strategic vision. Much of the technology that supports them is obsolete, unsustainable and a significant contributor to global warming.

In this context, many governments and businesses alike have focussed their attentions on the creation of smart cities. It’s a market estimated to be worth over $1 Trillion by 2016.  Typically the term conjures us images of futuristic cities that don’t yet exist, with no crime, traffic jams, or waste. Cities where everything from street lights to 24/7 sensors can be managed with the touch of a device. It’s feels in many ways like something straight out of minority report.

But what is a smart city?
It is not a well understood term, and part of the confusion is that there isn’t an agreed definition. Take these 2 examples:

Wikipedia defines it as:

An output of the desire for better knowledge and social capital, concept of the smart city has been introduced as a strategic device to encompass modern urban production factors in a common framework and to highlight the growing importance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), social and environmental capital in profiling the competitiveness of cities

Meanwhile IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative emphasises the use of big data and analytics as a key to smart cities stating a smart city:

Will be able to analyze date for better decisions, anticipate problems to resolve them proactively, and coordinate resources to operate effectively

Both definitions highlight different core elements of Smart Cities. And whilst a city in itself is a difficult thing to define, the confusion in definition doesn’t make it easier to understand. What we can see between the two definitions  is that Smart Cities have been termed as an expression of competitiveness, with the ever increasing amount of data that is produced and made more open as an opportunity to develop cities fit for the ‘smart age.’

In looking at this subject further, here are just some of the things I found as latest development areas for Smart Cities:

Smart Homes; Building Automation – Physical Security, Life Security,. Facilities Management; Energy Management – Smart Grid; Industrial Automation; Citizen Services – Healthcare, Education, Water; Smart Transportation – Traffic Management, Supervision, Passenger Information, Ticketing, Parking Management; Security – Urban Security, Critical Infrastructure Protection, ID Management, Cyber Security

A lot of investors have bet big on the ‘internet of things’ being the catapult for smart cities. This years roster at CES is going to feature a number of gadgets that aren’t your tablet or phone, but things like your cooker or even water bottle, that are all in some way ‘attached’ to the internet. There is a useful report on the state of Smart Cities – defined as “an urban area that uses the internet of things to collect and provide information to effectively manage city-wide assets and resources” illustrated  here.

Does this really meet the needs of the people?
We believe as a Fellowship of Mind team, that something can only ever be truly ‘smart’ if it delivers long term human advantages, and not just short term ICT advantages.

And with the current trend line of ‘smart’ and ‘smart cities’ in particular, I question if I really want my cooker telling me that it wants to be cleaned at 19:00 every day, and that having synced with the street light outside, it can provide me with new optimal cooking ambiance?  Or worse, do I really want a city to know everything about me, 24/7?

Privacy is a huge issue in ‘smart’ and perhaps the biggest thing that has been lost in all of this is actually what’s important to the needs of the civilians living in the cities? We want to ensure that we are not being ‘smart’ for ‘smart’ sake, and that the problems we solve are for better human fulfillment.

Afterall, what use are smart cities without smart people?

Why are cities already smart?
Whilst I discussed the context of the industrial revolution which most major cities have been created around, and the problems that has provided, let us not loose a sense of just how ‘smart’ cities are already, and how the answers could lie as much away from technology as with it.

If the industrial city evolved in opposition to nature, now there are great examples of cities that are created in harmony with nature.

According to Peter Ellis reporting in the FT:

We can design cities that consume significantly less water and energy than our present urban habitats. We can makes them completely regenerative organisms, creating and recycling all their resource.(1)

In India, where hundreds of millions of people are migrating from rural to urban areas, an entirely new city for 1m people s being designed. Jaypee Sports City is a living, breathing metropolis that harvests and recycles its resources. In a country that is becoming hotter and running out of water, and where the Himalayas (a life source for India) are diminishing year on year, the design of the new city has a vast network of parks which act as an urban reservoir to collect as much monsoon rainwater as the city consumes, and feed it into depleted aquifers. To cool the city, they also designed the parks and streets to channel the prevailing winds, while all the buildings are orientated to to avoid the worst of the sun’s heat.

These simple, but effective techniques, long forgotten in the industrial city, contribute to a more live-able and dare I say ‘smart’ climate.

In balancing the needs of developing ‘smart ICT’ and smart people, I suggest that we need a new utopia, and a new civic code for smart cities AND smart people.

The framework we put forward (2):

Opt in to smart: Don’t default to digital technology. Most of our problems can, in fact, be solved through policy, better plans or more clever design.

Build a web: The race is on for control of the protocols and choke points of smart-city infrastructure. But, instead of building a rigidly unified urban operating system, build a web of open technologies.

Extend public ownership: Everywhere, governments are privatising and reducing their role. But cities can and should take a more active role as data brokers, to improve management and to safeguard citizens from misuse of personal data.

Model transparently: The most powerful information in the smart city is the code that controls it. Expose the algorithms of its software and decision-support tools to public scrutiny.

Crowdsource with care: Without heed, crowdsourcing is often tantamount to privatisation, and leaves vulnerable citizens behind. Don’t use it to replace government, but to augment and supplement it.

Connect everyone: Smart cities leave people out – until they connect, register and log in. Taking extra care to ensure no one is left out of the loop is a key to developing ‘smart.’

Slow data: Amid all of today’s “big data”, we often forget we can design things to collect the important bits. Wire cities to collect just a few bits that can change the way we behave and get us off the energy treadmill – the harder we work at efficiency, the more we consume.

It’s this new balance that we advocate, and I welcome your thoughts on what a smart city means to you in our smart era.

Han-Son Lee

(1): Peter Ellis – Natural Harmony – FT Urban Ingenuity, December 11 2013.
(2): Adapted from Anthony Townsend, the author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for A New Utopia, writing in Wired Magazine, December 2013.