A Smart City Is More Than Just Sensors, Big Data, and Internet

Investing billions in big data and smart technology isn’t the only answer to building more sustainable urban areas. We need to focus on the big levers.

Cities are caught in a catch-22. They must improve life for citizens while also mitigating the harm caused by the daily activities of those citizens. Photograph: Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis.
Cities are caught in a catch-22. They must improve life for citizens while also mitigating the harm caused by the daily activities of those citizens. Photograph: Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis.

To a classical economist, cities should not really exist at all. They represent disease, higher costs of goods, land, and labour, and in so many cases, congestion that leaves workers stuck behind the wheel rather than their more productive desks or factory lines.

Cities represent the majority of greenhouse gas emissions (pdf), combined sewage overflows, and air pollutants. Meanwhile, urbanites experience many of the worst effects of the steady decline in ecological function. In 2013 alone, China’s poor air quality shut down Harbin, a city of 11 million people, and crippled the capital city of Beijing.

And yet, cities are the world’s engines of economic growth, accounting for 70% of global GDP and even more as the balance of humans tips from 50% to 70% urban between now and 2050.

With current transportation, energy, water, and emergency response systems designed for a much smaller population and more stable environment, cities are caught in a catch-22. They must enhance the quality of life for their citizens, while the very life support systems upon which they rely are hampered by the daily activities of those citizens.

So what is a city leader to do?

If you believe the claims emanating from those of us in the private sector, technology will come to your rescue. According to industry analysts, the “smart city” will represent a $39.5bn (£25.1bn) marketplace by 2016. However, I think we need to reconsider the construct of a smart city.

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First, the most obvious defect is that it confuses the means with the end. The smartest city in the world would probably look like the spaceship in the movie Wall-E – reliant on other planets’ natural resources, delivering people to their place of work like cargo, optimised principally for the number of custom ads your retinas “click” on along the way. Clearly the discourse needs to be redirected to one focused on the ends I suspect we all share – sustainable and liveable urban centres here on Earth.

Second, unlike wind turbines or jet engines, cities are not spinning machines. It makes sense to install sensors on turbines and engines, and things that tend to degrade without warning, like a building’s energy performance. When a new city is built from the ground up in China for example, sensoring everything up makes sense, but most cities already exist and must be more selective about what to instrument.

Third, big data is excellent in some contexts, but certainly not all. It is good at showing spatial or temporal patterns but no matter how good your algorithms for interrogating big data may be, it still requires humans to go beyond identifying correlation to proving causation. The bigger the data, the more each data point must compete for attention. When IBM and Honda sent signals from electric vehicles to Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility grid ignored them because it speaks in 500MW, not dozens of kilowatts, for example.

Lastly, cities must be very careful about what to bring online, both to maintain some semblance of privacy for its citizens and to protect them from cyber attacks.

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My argument is not anti-technology, it is pro-city. Sensors, big data and an all-seeing internet have a place, because you can’t fully manage what you can’t measure. But investing billions of dollars (which cities would have to raise) and dozens of years collecting big data (by which point we’ll be well past the climate change tipping point) only improves things at the margins.

Let’s focus on the big levers: sound policies and analysis-driven urban planning. This might include science-based targets (ie C-FACT for Cities which helps cities set scientific and economic-based targets for measuring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions); the triple bottom line business case; and simulating the possibilities of more absorbent, energy efficient, and transit-friendly urban designs.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

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