Does a Smart City really need technology?
During a recent talk by Mike Rawlinson of City ID at the Future Cities Catapult (if you haven’t dealt with them before, or been to their Urban Innovation Centre, I highly recommend it), I was struck by a small snippet during his presentation that really resonated with me: “Digital back end, analogue front end.”
The reason why this sentence resonated with me is that in the time that I have been observing talks about Smart Cities, they have been dominated by one thing: technology. (In case you don’t know anything about what Smart Cities are, go to page 7 of this background paper from the Government)
The idea that through open data, creating more datasets on city functions and infrastructure, and providing a means for those with the willingness to innovate to create new technologies and improve digital services is an attractive one. There has been much in the way of impressive work and research in this field, and as our Government itself admits, Smart Cities are not an end goal in themselves, but a process of continual improvement.
But does the outcome need to be a digital service, a new platform, or even innovation? It is often forgotten that digital platforms can also act as a catalyst for non-digital services that really contribute the livability of our cities. Excellent work on improve the legibility of Bristol, and of course Legible London, uses a core digital product to understand how people view their city. The approach is simple: use digital products to understand how people view their city, create a digital platform to deliver digital and non-digital products. As an aside, I would love to see the first use of sentiment mapping as part of a legible city project.
And one the outcomes of this? Signposts. Simple signposts and totems that are meaningful. Nothing techie, nothing flash. Just simple totems with maps, arrows, and walking times. No screen required. After all, despite a pelethora of online mapping and navigation capability, the single most useful method of navigation is observing ones environment.
This comes back to something more fundamental about cities — they are a human construct, and the most successful cities are ones that balance the large and human scale. My fellow transport professionals are slowly beginning to accept this, realising that streets have both movement and place functions. Cities are tangible, touchable, experiencable things. Technology hasn’t quite made the leap into the tangible for navigation yet — though Google Glass was a step in that direction.
I don’t mean to say that the delivery of digital services, and going after the digital economy is in any way a bad idea. Far from it. Technology has significant potential to improve our lives for the better, and some of those experiences manifest themselves in the physical world.
But perhaps the more meaningful innovations to be had in smart cities are ones that use digital technology to improve how we experience cities, but we don’t need technology to experience the benefit. After all, despite the technology, the reason why we love cities is the life and opportunity within them, isn’t it?