Daily scenes in a smart city
These lines will surely seem naive, but I cannot resist sharing them. In the face of the abundance of sophisticated promises surrounding the idea of the intelligent city, to offer up daily anecdotes as proof that the intelligent city goes beyond the idea of technology could appear frivolous.
Take the example of public transport. We strive to create solutions that provide real-time automated information processing for users, offering screens and mobile phone applications to show waiting times, updating maps to locate the transportation fleet in the city, SMS warning systems, etc. We want instant information in real time in order to decide to catch the bus at one stop or another, to accelerate or adjust our pace in order to arrive before its passage.
And a woman sees the bus at the stop and starts to run to try and reach it. Will she make it? Does she run because she has looked at her mobile and it has advised her that the bus is about to leave? No, simply that she has it in sight and has noticed that all the passengers have already boarded. There are just 30 meters between her and a 30 minute wait for the next one. And she makes it onto the bus, thanks to two intelligent actions: a group of kids gave way upon seeing her begin to run, assisting in her heated race. And a lady, waiting for another bus, has approached the bus on the verge of leaving and has asked the driver to wait, pointing to the woman who had less than 10 meters to go when the bus seemed to accelerate.
A metro comes to the station. The digital screens announce it is about to resume its movement. Hurried passengers swipe their tickets with “invisible” information about the type of ticket, the station of origin, the tariff they have paid. Some even approach with their smart cards, which include a system connected to their banks in order to pay for trips without the need to recharge them or buy tickets. Four exit doors, that only open if the passenger has a valid ticket. They are the same four doors available for entry. Thirty people exit and occupy all the doors, making it impossible to enter for the two people waiting outside, who had seen the metro arrive. They will miss the train, even now with their smart cards. But among those leaving a person has stopped and instead of validating his exit ticket, has decided to move out of the doorway. He makes those inside wait, in order to allow the people that want to board the train to do so. These two people are at last able to board the train, without knowing exactly how they have managed to do so.
A red light for pedestrians. With its LEDs and automated from an integrated city transportation control center. A young man waits for the light to turn green, on a street where cars circulate at about 50 km/h. He waits and notices, instinctively, that a small child approaches. Mechanically, almost without thinking, he extends his arm and stops the child in his path, on the verge of entering the crosswalk. He does not know what caused him to extend his hand, but while he thinks about it, the light turns green and he begins to walk, while the child’s grandparents approach and one explains to the child not to let go of his hand.
Nine at night, time to take out the trash. The yellow dumpster is filled with waste. The man thinks doubtfully: Should I leave the bag next to the container? Should I leave it in the blue container? He thinks a second longer. He decides to take it back upstairs and try again the next day.
A playground. A chaos of shouts, bikes, balls, running children and adults chatting in different circles. Nobody knows it, but a child cries because she cannot find her mother, and on the other side of the park, a father looks uneasily for his daughter, who he has not seen for some time. It is a poorly lit park, but at least there are security cameras. A youth rapidly crosses the park, in a hurry. But he sees the child and stops. Speaking with her, he discovers that she is lost. He is an adult, a stranger speaking with a child. He stays with her until her father appears, scared, barely able to thank the young man as the youth leaves looking at his watch. He will arrive a little late for his appointment.
In either of these situations and increasingly, technology is present. Not the technology that we today call smart, but artifacts in the broadest sense. A bench in the street is also technology. The smart promise — in real time, ubiquitous, etc. — is just an additive that we can include thanks to technological advances. But in none of these cases is it decisive in resolving everyday situations, those real experiences of people who share city life and provide real solutions to other people living in the same city. When I wrote that the intelligence of a city is on the streets, I referred mainly to these situations. It is not a polar opposite to technological sophistication. On the contrary, it is a reminder that this sophistication needs to consider daily life in the city in order to avoid falling into the trap of technological determinism or to think that technology will solve people’s everyday problems.
Every day, in every street, thousands of voluntary and involuntary acts facilitate (or hinder) life. The attitude of care and the awareness of sharing a common space are, in all cases, the most relevant aspects of these stories. I do not know if they are intelligent behaviors, but they are relevant. Including these key ideas in the design of technological solutions for urban functions is essential so that these solutions are user-oriented, are proportionate to the actual scope and reach that technological solutions can offer, are understandable and have a useful urban function. Including these types of features in technological projects implemented in cities would help to better understand how cities function, how citizens behave and how to integrate unpredictability as an essence of urban life.
This post was firstly posted in March 2012 on Ciudades a Escala Humana.