A smart city: It’s not just about technology

Diane Wang
Aug 11, 2016 · 6 min read

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘smart city’, and how it represents our future. The term has permeated our urban planning, government policies, and emerging technology spaces. (Pilot cities like Barcelona, Vienna, Vancouver and more are all issuing the #smartcities challenge). In fact, for most people, ’smart city’ is synonymous for “the city of the future”.

We talk about smart cities and we think: The Hyperloop. A Jetson’s fantasy. Clean, minimal aesthetic. Electric, self-driving cars. Connected, automated technology that cooks, cleans, and organises my life for me. Vertical farming. That spinning digital closet from Clueless. And funnily enough, we’re already living in the future that AT&T imagined in 1994.

Quite frankly, our cities have only gotten smarter and smarter since first settlements began. We’ve come a long way — we’ve developed governing bodies, public infrastructure such as sanitation, emergency services, medical care, and we’ve also figured out how to supply energy and utilities such as water, and heat to a large, dense population. This trajectory is naturally taking us towards the smart city as we continue to develop new and better technologies.

What a city entails (Source: IBM).

But it’s important to remember that designing a smart city is not only about designing technology that fits into it. A city itself, is more than just technology within it. It’s made up of a multitude of things: energy supply, sanitation procedures, police departments, fire departments, housing projects, public spaces, policy, and public works (IBM breaks this down very well).

Technology is what enables us to build smarter, more efficient processes for these aspects of city planning. What we need to do is design urban infrastructure that scales and grows as the city does. Now, it’s not about building just a smarter city, but as Y Combinator rightly put it, a better city. After all, who are we designing this city for? The people in it.

There are two ways to become ‘smarter’ or ‘better’ at something.

  1. Analyse how you’re currently doing something to identify inefficiencies, pain-points, and areas of improvement, to make the process smarter, more efficient and smoother.
  2. Invent a new process. This comes with the baggage of education and implementation of a new process in a place where the legacy procedure, however decrepit and inefficient, has often become habit.

But first…

Before we get to the inventing, we need to decide what we’re optimising for. What is the ‘success’ of a city measured by? The happiness of its citizens? Its’ economic health? GDP? The average quality of life?

Let’s look at happiness for a second. The World Happiness Report has Denmark, at the forefront, explained by 7 characteristics: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption and dystopia. (Fun fact: Hong Kong ranks 75th, behind the likes of Kazakhstan, Colombia and Libya). Jeffrey Sachs, of the Earth Institute at Columbia, also helped release a happiness report in which he identified that by and large, mental health is the largest factor contributing to happiness. And in turn, mental health is affected by factor such as: employment, self-esteem, trust and safety, living standard, perceived equality, social inclusion.

How is the Hyperloop necessarily going to help with self-esteem, trust, or even safety within a city? That’s not to say it won’t do wonders for mobility or indirectly increasing the living standard for parts of the population. But as Sachs rightly put it,

“The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa.

It’s not only the economy, but also public infrastructure, policy, and technology that exist to serve the people in a smart city.

What we’re seeing is that whilst the modern challenge for urban infrastructure centres around the following areas:

  • Mobility
  • Energy
  • Connectivity
  • Population growth and density

The social challenges we must solve at the same time either through these lens or as a result are:

  • Equality, or inequality, rather
  • Social inclusion or access (community)
  • A standard quality of life
Sustainability and environmental footprints are becoming larger concerns for our population.

Smart cities 3.0

Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug 10 this year, and it’s only been creeping forwards ever since it was first developed. If we look at the chart below, it’s scary how many earths we’d need to keep living the way we do. No wonder that we’ve been heralding the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. On the surface, it seems to allow us to reduce our global footprints, and the general amount of ‘things’ in our lives. For example, the owning of a car, might possibly become a thing of the past.

We’re rapidly depleting the planet’s resources. (Source: Quartz)

Smart cities 3.0, as defined by Boyd Cohen, is one of citizen co-creation. Vienna is the prime example of this, where citizens were investors in local solar plants, actively contributing to the city’s 2050 renewable energy objectives. Here, Vienna quite neatly tackling two issues at the same time, one being energy infrastructure, the second being social inclusion. Social engagement leads to higher levels of community, and allows for a proliferation of sharing activities, such as tool lending libraries, bike-sharing, and more to succeed. All of which contributes to a higher quality of living and that in turn might lead to more satisfaction amongst Viennese citizens.

But if we’re truly moving towards the sharing economy, and reducing our global footprint, doesn’t this mean that we need to generate higher levels of trust and collaboration within the community? The sharing economy, though beneficial, isn’t truly available to all demographics. In a panel with Microsoft, it’s been shown that participating in the shared economy is difficult for underserved populations. Particularly as they don’t have the resources they can share, and can’t afford the cost to share either. How can we fix this type of disparity in our new smart city?

Looking forwards

The question is not how we can live in the future, but how we should live. And most importantly, together. Smart city, automation, new technologies, while all good and great for raising living standards, are not always actively addressing important social issues. Even in ancient Greek times, Hippodamus, the first urban planner, also understood that beyond infrastructure planning, a town or city plan should also consider how to clarify social order. Our cities are built for people — they are where we congregate together, work together, play together and live together. What makes the city tick at the end of the day, is its population. And the alternative is a ghost town, without life.

So let’s focus on building a better city, and using technology and policy to solve our social issues as well, not just our own conveniences. In reality, a smart city is also a political challenge.


For further reading:

Nest Ideas

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Diane Wang

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The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

Nest Ideas

Insights and musings from the Nest team around the world.

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