This is the second post in a series about smart cities, based on some advisory work that I did last year for Cisco. You can read the first post here.
The posts are based on the proposition that in the end, if the smart city idea is to be both interesting and genuinely transformative in a deep and sustained way, it should be about much more. And, at its heart, it should be about the relationship between people and the places in which they live and work.
As others have argued, smart cities should be “smart” because of the way they engage people and their relationships with the urban spaces they live in. They are not smart because of the technology, although the technology, especially the next wave of “internet of things”, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be a foundation of what makes them smart.
They will be smart because they engage a set of bigger political, social, ethical and environmental opportunities and risks which fundamentally impact the way people experience cities for work, play, learning and politics
Smart cities: so far, so good, but…
In Australia and around the world, the smart cities movement has been building around some common themes. Over the 15 years or so, these are the markers of an approach to smart cities that is beginning to show results.
Infrastructure and systems
There has been a big focus on applying networked technologies and emerging digital technologies to the big infrastructure investments and city system rebuilds vital to city effectiveness. Projects have focused on transport and traffic management, energy efficiency and distribution, water and air quality, road building and some elements of traditional transactional service delivery.
Investments in networks, connectivity and a range of new platforms and tools for communication and collaboration have been an important focus of investment in their own right. Smart city strategies have refined a business case for investment in connectedness as the inescapable pre-requisite for pretty much everything else they want to achieve. Smart cities are nothing if not widely networked and deeply connected.
Transport and mobility
Especially recently with the rise of “sharing” services like Uber and the new social media based tools for sharing information about congestion across cities, mobility has been a big focus of the smart city movement. There are other elements of the mobility agenda – making it easier to get around cities with public transport, bicycles and walking and the use of policy instruments like congestion charging.
Smart = green
From the beginning, the smart city movement has had a strong “green” tinge. The idea that networked and increasingly social and mobile technologies have something to offer to make cities part of the solution, as opposed to a core part of the problem, for sustainability and climate change has been a strong lure for investors and policy makers.
Measuring and reporting air and water quality, making or retrofitting buildings and physical infrastructure with sensor and data analytics, using technology to predict and to some extent avoid or ameliorate the worst excesses of unnecessary congestion have all featured in various ways in programs for greener, more sustainable cities.
The innovation game: hubs and precincts
The other pervasive feature of the smart city movement to this point has been the faith, money and assets invested in the development of variations on the ‘hub” or “precinct” model.
More or less influenced by the stories from Silicon Valley, Boston, London and Israel, to name the most common and well known, the ambition is to use hubs and precincts as a way to efficiently chase agglomeration and integration strategies that spur and sustain innovation (on the assumption that fuelling a steady stream of innovation in products, services and platforms is an indispensable engine of smart city success and impact).
The smart city critique
For these critics, the contrast between reliance on generic technology solutions, often driven by variations on command-and-control centralised systems and surveillance, and the much messier and complex human nuances of context-specific and local culture and circumstances gives rise to big policy and ethical questions. Not to mention some pretty hefty issues of commercial interest and influence.
The implications for patterns of power and authority and the distribution of risks and opportunity are significant and often either downplayed or not acknowledged at all.
For these critics, rendering the unpredictable patterns of organic and highly localised interplay of economic, social, cultural and urban design factors from which cities form and evolve into more tractable models of technical analysis and control risks all sorts of unintended consequences for equality and freedom.