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Being a Smart City is not Enough!
- Feb 2015 -

Imagine the scene: You get off the underground train after a long day at work, you scroll your finger over the biometric reader at the barrier which allows you through whilst simultaneously calling for your self-driving taxi to come and pick you up outside the station. 

You are welcomed into the car by Bro, your ‘friendly’ operating system, who of course already knows where your home is. As you sit down, a camera swivels around and locks on to your face and starts analysing your skin tones and eyes. 

Just as you are thinking about that yummy pizza you’re going to stick in the oven, Bro starts telling you that you have deficiencies in various vitamins and suggests you eat beetroot soup and steamed broccoli for dinner… “Oh shut up!” you shout, as you feel your soul being eaten away by the cold technological matrix taking over your life. 

“I’m sorry, I did not understand you, please can you repeat that?” says Bro, whose AI and voice recognition system doesn’t extend to real human emotions and the slang phrases that accompany them. You have to calm yourself and politely ask Bro to please be quiet and leave you alone. You finally arrive at your house and as you get out of the car, you hear the purring noise of drones hovering over you, just to make sure you don’t get attacked by terrorists as you walk up the path to your house.

Sounds good, right? I don’t think so. 

Perhaps that scenario might sound extreme but it gets to the crux of how we plan and build communities and societies of the future. 

For some years now, the ‘Smart City’ phenomenon has been building momentum, often touted as an aspirational vision of the future we must pursue. Combine that with the much-heralded ‘Internet of Things’ and we are told how new connected objects are going to make cities so much better in the future. Lamp posts, street lighting, traffic lights, smartphones all connecting and communicating to ensure that everything is much ‘smarter’ and therefore ‘better’. But better for whom exactly and why? We must never forget that great cities, whether they are ‘smart’ or not, are all about the people that live there. New technologies can be compelling, as long as they do actually improve the living environment for people. That nightmare scenario that I described above is what a lot of people already fear will materialise through the design of Smart Cities. Some of that fear is understandable in my opinion. 

A recent Guardian article captures that concern better than I could. Zinc was recently selected to be the ‘Product Development’ partner for Cognicity, a pioneering new project in London that brings together a total of thirty six startups, Pivotal Innovations, Intel, and the Canary Wharf Group to reimagine the city of the future. They are building a completely new micro city from the ground up, integrating innovative technologies to create new ‘smart’ products and services. We were really excited to be selected for this intriguing project although somewhat apprehensive too. What kind of ‘Smart City’ would this be? Would we be able to influence it in any ‘human centred’ kind of way?! 

The truth is that it’s been nothing but positive so far. Lots of exciting startups are doing amazing things, ranging from user driven apps for real time information on traffic to various renewable energy / energy management solutions for buildings. One can’t underestimate the huge potential to improve core infrastructure through new technologies. Better efficiencies around energy consumption, waste management and transport can have a big impact on both an environmental and economical level, which in turn benefit people on a macro level. However, we must think very carefully about the micro level too and the day-to-day experiences people have with these technologies. 

Apart from anything else, we must respect privacy, anonymity and individual data to keep people feeling free, empowered and motivated. I’ve just returned from Cognicity’s launch of the second two tracks of work (Integrated Resource Management and Automated Building Management) in which twelve more startups have been introduced to the project. It was brilliant to hear Eric Van der Kleij, the Head of Level 39, announce that whilst all these new technologies are being introduced, they are going to track the ‘happiness’ of people on the estate, because ultimately that is what this should all be about….improving peoples’ lives and making people ‘happier’. Although that might sound a little utopian, Eric’s point was clear…let’s make sure that technology is being leveraged for the benefit of people. 

It makes perfect sense that Cognicity needs to focus firstly on core infrastructure, and in their case, the ‘interoperability’ of technologies / services is a key theme, yet they are still ultimately people focused. I guess the point of this article is to think longer term. 

Beyond infrastructure and urban planning (including plenty of outdoor spaces like parks etc) I believe there are three other vital ingredients to any fantastic city and they are all focused on people. What typically do we appreciate in cities? Architecture, Theatre, Art, Food & Drink, Music, Fashion, Cinema and Media all come to mind… and what do they all have in common? Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Diversity (cultures) Empower and give multicultural people the freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial, and cities become vibrant exciting places in which to live, connect, and collaborate with others. We all contribute in our own way of course, whether we are visiting, working or living in the city, but we need the bars, restaurants, shops, markets, events, music, exhibitions, shows etc to come together and interact. So, when we look beyond the core infrastructure of ‘Smart Cities’, we should be thinking about how new technologies can enhance creativity, entrepreneurship and multiculturalism. Beyond ‘Smart Cities’, we really should be striving to develop vibrant human centred cities that use technology wherever appropriate to enhance that. For example, why not create more ‘decentralised’ public spaces in different neighborhoods that can be adopted and managed by local citizens (instead of the laborious red tape of local councils) through connected technologies. In much the same way the open source movement has been fuelling creativity and collaboration through things like Arduino and the Maker Movement, why not adopt something similar for local communities and public spaces? 

Give ownership to the people who live there and empower them to manage, book and promote both external and internal spaces where they can do whatever they choose within the law: food stalls & trucks, artisan markets, live music, art installations, fashion shows….the list is endless. 

Those spaces could be designed using smart technologies to really enhance the experiences for visitors too, whether it’s navigating around the spaces, collaborating with each other, sharing with the world, broadcasting live etc. There are of course many other ways we can use technology to enhance creativity, entrepreneurship and diversity. The point is that we should use technology to bring people together and create humanistic experiences. 

Let’s not allow that cold matrix paradigm to emerge, but instead let’s create cities with soul that inspire people to connect, collaborate and do amazing things that build a sense of community, ownership and ultimately… well,…”happiness”…??

Key Highlights from Wearable Technologies 2015