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How smart are ‘smart’ cities?

How smart are ‘smart’ cities? Shutterstock
09 Jan
Our metropolises are becoming highly networked and technologically advanced urban hubs. How should we react to the rise of the smart city?

It may seem a strange place to begin, but it could be argued that cities first starting becoming ‘smart’ back in 1922, when the world’s first automated traffic lights were installed in Houston, Texas. Ever since then we’ve seen urbanism and technology becoming closer and closer friends, with various high-tech systems being added to our urban infrastructure over the years.

However, it seems that the first truly ’smart cities’ are upon us. In June 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a plan to built one hundred smart cities. ‘Cities in the past were built on riverbanks. They are now built along highways,’ he declared. ‘But in the future, they will be built based on availability of optical fibre networks and next-generation infrastructure.’

India is not the only country embracing the construction of brand new smart cities. China's investment in nationwide smart city construction is expected to exceed two trillion yuan ($322billion) by 2025, while another pioneer in high-tech urbanism is Masdar, Abu Dhabi, which, as reported by Geographical, aspires to be a modern, highly technologically advanced $22billion home to 40,000 residents in the Arabian desert.

In Copenhagen the Green Wave cycling system coordinates traffic lights so that cyclists who maintain a 20 km/h travelling speed only see green traffic lights all the way along their commute

However, it is Songdo, South Korea, which has emerged as the poster child for this new approach to city building. Situated on a man-made island near Incheon, the country’s main international airport, Songdo is currently home to 65,000 residents and features a smart infrastructure built into the very foundations of the city. Highlights include a waste disposal system where refuse is sucked underground directly from people’s homes, RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking devices fitted to cars to prompt traffic signals to change during periods of congestion, and  video call ‘TelePresence screens’ fitted in every home, office and shopping centre.

But it’s not only the emerging economies which are leading the way with smart cities. In fact, for the time being they are significantly lagging behind. Boyd Cohen, urban strategist and council advisor to the Smart Cities Council, has compiled his worldwide Smart Cities Index annually since 2012, the latest of which named six ‘pioneering smart cities’ – Barcelona, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Singapore, Vancouver and Vienna. The Index measures indicators ranging from broadband coverage and mobile app interaction, to usage of renewable energy and number of electric car charging points.

'Whether they will be called smart cities, future cities, sharing cities, innovative cities or some other term in the future, no one really knows' Cohen tells Geographical. 'But I am confident in stating that all cities are or will be aspiring to most of the underlying values of what the smart cities 'movement' is about. At its core, I believe smart cities are about being innovative. Innovative in how they are governed, innovative in how they allocate taxpayer money, innovative in how they engage citizens in transforming the city, driven to support innovation and creativity in the local economy, and yes, innovative in the use of technology as a tool to improve quality of life and improve efficiency'. 

Specific smart initiatives from these and other leading cities stand out; for example the Green Wave cycling system in Copenhagen, the principle behind which is to allow commuting cyclists to be able to ride to and from work at a consistent 20 km/h without needing to stop. First seen in the Nørrebrogade part of the city in 2007, the system coordinates traffic lights across Copenhagen so that cyclists who maintain that 20 km/h travelling speed only see green traffic lights all the way along their commute. There is now a push to roll out schemes such as these globally, in much the same way as public transport smart cards are now ubiquitous in urban areas around the world.

songdoSongdo, South Korea. Image: JIPEN / Shutterstock

But while smart cities have attracted praise and investment around the world, there has also been a significant amount of criticism. One issue is the central role played by private tech firms, such as IBM and Cisco Systems, encouraging governments to invest in technologies which the firms in question can then profit from providing. ‘From their perspective, the goal is clearly to find new markets for their existing products and services, or minor variations thereupon,’ claims Adam Greenfield, author of Against the Smart City.

While Cisco can take credit for Songdo, Greenfield also cites the $14million IBM-built ‘Intelligent Operations Centre’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which collates data on local weather, traffic, social media and others into a more digestible stream of information. ‘IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center product is merely a zeitgeisty repackaging of a set of rules governing the execution of preset, stereotyped procedures any time the distributed mesh of sensing devices detects that some threshold value of a given metric has been breached,’ says Greenfield. ‘As for the claim that the software suite develops a full enough picture of what’s happening in the city on a minute-by-minute basis that it can help administrators predict and pre-empt emergent conditions, what it does is actually little more elaborate than the rules you might set up to manage spam filters for your email client’s inbox. It’s something one might use to manage the operations of any large organisation. There’s virtually nothing about it that’s inherently or specifically urban.’

One issue is the central role played by private tech firms, such as IBM and Cisco Systems, encouraging governments to invest in technologies which the firms in question can then profit from providing

While it would be surprising to see developments in urbanism deviate too far from developments in technology for the foreseeable future, the rapid rise of smart cities does overlap with some people’s concerns regarding the construction of urban areas without a meaningful sense of place. Combined with an increasing desire amongst urbanists for ‘livability’ in our cities, the topic raises questions regarding the ultimate purpose of such integrated systems.

As Greenfield writes in Against the Smart City: ‘The smart city as we encounter it in Songdo, Masdar City and PlanIT Valley [a €10billion, 225,000 resident settlement planned for rural Portugal, incorporating Microsoft and Cisco Systems technology] seems to lack a certain something. It is not simply that these sites are literally ahistorical. It’s that their developers appear to lack any feel for the ways in which cities actually generate value for the people who live in them.’

Boyd Cohen also has strong feelings about city livability. 'In the end, cities are systems where people live, work and play' he says. 'I don't have much faith in cities built with technology first, where the citizens are not even present to participate in the formation and transformation of the city. New cities must be built to accommodate the continued urbanisation of the planet, but I believe governments need to find a middle ground between the random purely organic evolution of urban and suburbanized communities, and the top-down, technology-driven greenfield cities'.

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