Smart Cities of Today

For Good or for Bad, Our Cities are Evolving

by PASCAL HARTMANN

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All around the world, cities are transformed into smart cities. As citywide access to the internet has become the norm almost everywhere, information-gathering technologies – such as cameras and sensors – are being installed in the built environment. These artificial eyes and ears provide a constant stream of data, which is visualized and analyzed in central control rooms. Think of it as the brain of a city, a brain which monitors and maintains the flow of traffic, coordinates the response to disasters and crimes as they are happening, and manages the day-to-day business of cities in a better and more efficient way. The term “smart city” refers to an urban environment that constantly collects information, and acts - in some cases automatically - in response to that data. The push for smart cities will change not only our urban environment, but also our behavior, our values and the ways in which we interact with each other.

Smart City, Safer City

Rio de Janeiro built a smart city control room back in 2010, in cooperation with IBM and in anticipation of the World Cup of 2014 and the Summer Olympics of 2016. One of the smart systems added to the new digital infrastructure was Shotspotter, a technology also used in several cities in the United States, including Washington D.C, San Francisco, Boston, and Miami. Shotspotter is a network of acoustic sensors that detect gunfire and determine the location of the gunshots. It allows police forces to react quickly without anyone in the neighborhood actually calling emergency services. It’s a technology that reports possible crimes automatically. San Francisco’s chief of police claims that gun violence in the city went down 50% because of Shotspotter.

Not all smart city technologies concern public security: some target the more efficient use of natural and human resources. The city of Barcelona, for instance, uses sensors in public parks that measure the moisture in the soil and irrigate the landscape when and only when necessary. This smart irrigation system is expected to save 25% of water usage in the city, worth USD 60mn. Barcelona also invested in smart trashcans, which automatically notify city workers when full. Smart parking systems, which guide drivers to free parking spots and reduce traffic in the city by roughly 20%, are now being used in most European cities. In recent years many of China’s notoriously polluted cities have introduced sensors measuring air quality levels. Citizens can access this data through their smart phones and plan their outdoor activities accordingly. This technology has become a part of everyday life, and has radically changed public awareness of pollution in China.

What is a Smart City?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of what a smart city actually is. A paper issued by the UK Department for Business Innovation & Skills in 2013 states “the concept is not static: there is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more livable and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker [sic] to new challenges.” The paper also states that a smart city integrates hard infrastructure, social capital, and digital technology “to fuel sustainable economic development and provide an attractive environment for all.”

As much as the smart city movement emphasizes good intentions and noble goals, one should not lose sight of the fact that the essence of a smart city is the digital infrastructure and the use of citywide information-collecting systems. One should also keep in mind that the smart city movement is in many cases a marketing campaign. Information technology industry giants like IBM, Cisco, ABB, and Siemens have lobbied for the concept of smart cities for almost two decades now by funding research, think tanks, publications and conferences. Smart cities are big business. Frost and Sullivan, an international growth consulting company, estimate the market volume of smart city technology at USD 1.5tn by 2020. It is a big market with enormous growth potential. Today, one out of two people on this planet lives in a city, and it is estimated that by 2050 this will be three out of four people. This is the urban century, and there is a lot of money to be made.

Smart cities are a vision of our collective urban future, and this vision is currently being put into practice. India alone plans to built 100 smart cities in the near future. 311 cities in China had proposed or started smart city projects by the end of 2013. All major cities in Europe and the United States are running smart city programs. New smart technology, also referred to as Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things, is considered a driving force in future economic development.

Centuries of Perfect Cities

Urbanists have proposed visions of better cities for centuries. These visions are rooted in the urban experience of their time; they address contemporary challenges and often utilize new technologies. One example worth studying is Le Corbusier’s vision of the modern city, as presented in the 95 theses of the Charter of Athens, published in 1943. According to Le Corbusier, the modern city should follow a master plan that defines functional zones; the city should be designed to provide fresh air, sunlight and green space for the residents. The most important function of the modern city is neither work nor consumption but dwelling, therefore apartment buildings should be located in the best possible location. In order to provide sufficient green space and to make sure that apartments get enough sunlight, the city should grow vertically. The residential high-rise building in a green park is the characteristic structure of this modern city, made possible by new building technologies. Office space for the new service industry should be placed in new high-rise office towers located in newly built central business districts. Factories should be moved outside the city, far away from residential areas to avoid pollution. The daily commute between functions is rendered possible by newly built highways and the new automobile technology.

Le Corbusier’s vision of the modern city rises from the chaos of the industrial city in the 19th century, which developed wildly and without regulation, around factories. The majority of residential quarters were unplanned, overpopulated and heavily polluted. Horrific living and working conditions caused social problems, regular uprisings and moral decline. Le Corbusier’s vision of the modern city is the antithesis of the industrial city: the dream of a rational metropolis that has the wellbeing of its residents in mind.

Le Corbusier’s modern city didn’t work out in reality. Where it was put into practice, it led to monotonous cityscapes, anonymous streets, deserted business districts, unemployment, and under-utilized spaces without a purpose. Le Corbusier’s plan failed, because it ignored the vital forces that make cities strive: social interaction and cultural exchange. His vision of a modern city is a rational plan driven by the desire for order through technology: in other words, a Cartesian nightmare.

The Dark Side of the Smart Dream

Is the smart city movement about to repeat the same mistakes? The movement seems to draw its inspiration from the crowded cities of the developing world, which will also be the biggest markets for smart technology solutions. However, technology cannot build better cities. Yes, smart technology can solve existing problems, but it will also import a whole new set of issues. The smart city is a product of the digital age: the age of smart phones and the internet, drone strikes, cyber attacks and global surveillance programs, climate change and peak oil, Google Glass, big data, social networks, and the end of privacy.

The question is not whether we want to live in a smart city or not: we don't have that choice. We have never been fully in control of our future. We might be able to adjust the direction here and there, but we do not set the course. Technology has a way of prevailing against all opposition. Technology makes itself necessary by addressing fears, creating new possibilities, and by changing values.

I am in my late thirties now. I grew up without the internet and without a mobile phone. When I went out to play in the afternoons, I was unreachable. If my mother had to find me, she would drive around the village and look for me. The truth is that my mother didn’t know where I was most of the time. This would be considered irresponsible parenting today: because we now have the technology to reach each other all the time, we have the responsibility to be reachable at all times. Some parents even use smart phones to track their children’s whereabouts. On New Year’s Eve 2014, 36 people were killed in a stampede near Chen Yi Square on the Bund in Shanghai. The incident is considered a major failure on the side of public authorities largely because the technology and the procedures to prevent such a disaster already exist: camera surveillance and crowd control protocols. Smart technology could have prevented the disaster: therefore, it will be mandatory in the future. It is not difficult to imagine that ten to twenty years from now it will be considered irresponsible to manually drive a car in densely populated urban areas.

Our cities will become smarter, and probably safer. They might also become more boring and monotonous, because technology has a tendency towards uniformity, while culture and social interaction have a tendency towards diversity. It has become a common practice in many European cities to expel undesired people from the closely monitored downtown areas: homeless people, street artists, punks, etc. How will public spaces change when cameras and sensors replace eyes and ears? Will citizens still care about what’s happening in such places if the city takes care of itself? Why leave the apartment when companies like Amazon or Alibaba deliver everything one want or need to the doorstep? The essence of cities is in the play of everyday life as it unfolds on the stage of streets, parks, and plazas. This is the culture that creates the identity and atmosphere we grow to love about our environment. There is a lot of great promise in smart city technology, but it won’t serve to open our cities, make them more diverse, or more engaging.

Further Information

Pascal Hartmann is a sociologist and urban theorist who works for logon architecture in Shanghai, a German-based international design company. He is chief strategist and head of logon lab, a research & development department conducting independent research projects into urban developments and trends. He has lived in Shanghai for eight years.

 


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