Should cities become “smart ” cities? Sure, who would want a dumb city, especially now that the metro region has become the dominant human form of organization ? Even though their governance gets more complicated as cities get bigger and bigger, they are still comparabl y nimble compared to nation states.
As a result, cities today have become innovation leaders and experimenters in sustainability, resilience, local food production, transport logistics, crowd funding and community participation. Mayors collaborate internationally and often more fruitfully than presidents. In this context, urban planning has to step up its game from intuitive creative design in gypsum and wood models to a more scientific approach taking advantage of digital technology. Can data and real-time sensing get us to a state of “evidence-based urban design,” fact-based city planning, and long-term thinking, instead of thinking based on election cycles? Can the technology of the “smart” city, i.e. the transition from analog to digital, bring about a more holistic, system-based city planning that really makes for better cities? In light of the recent unrest in my hometown of Baltimore, “better” should also mean addressing equity and the wealth gap.
The answers vary depending on whom one asks. Americans (even imports like me) tend to be more optimistic than Europeans who tend to see the downside of new technology before the upside. Clearly, the playing field is far from level and large corporations have already positioned themselves to profit from new urban technologies, including Siemens, Cisco, Google and Autodesk to name a few. But like nation states, they suffer from sluggishness and fear “disruptive change” wrought by entrepreneurs who sell directly to the masses from their basements. Some of those whiz kids then become large corporations themselves with their tentacles into the pockets of every unsuspecting smart phone owner making citizens believe Google, Uber and Facebook know way too much about everyone. The promise of open data, technology and smart cities can flip from dream to nightmare in a blink. Edward Snowden has shed light on that.
Thus the debate about the smart city takes place at the intersection of:
• the need for a more fact and data based decision making processes in ever larger cities subjected to ever larger “wicked problems,” as the late German-American professor Horst Rittel called them
• “big data” on a scale that even George Orwell never imagined
• and the possibility of real people-power enabled by technology that can make everybody a player via the ubiquitous computing power of mobile devices, open access, direct communication and crowd sourcing
In this debate, understanding possible scenarios and desired outcomes is preferable to fear based opinions. As typical for new technologies, initial digital applications seem to hardly break new ground and often appear rather silly. In my then hometown of Stuttgart a downtown parking guide system was introduced in the Seventies that told you how many open spaces there were in each garage. There, light rail trains used analog sensors for decades to gain signal priority by making the traffic intersection aware of their location. Now, with digital sensors, anybody can pull up the location of a train on a smart phone. In San Francisco, embedded sensors allow display of open curbside parking spaces on a smart phone; they can now be priced according to demand. Initially, a smart phone called a taxi the same way as a dumb phone. But then came Uber and an entirely new way of providing such a service with more power and convenience in the hands of the consumer. Initially a smart phone could imitate a car based navi. But then smart phones themselves became the source of real time traffic speed and now the smart phone provides crowdsourced guidance on the actual quickest route of the moment, more useful than even than advice from the most experienced cab drivers.
Dynamic data is useful not just for traffic but for real estate sales, council bills, or demographic shifts. Data once horded in secret files can become available at your fingertips: an institute of the University of Baltimore shares neighborhood indicators with anybody via an open data platform. That’s where journalists the world over got their sad statistics about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested prior to his death in police custody. Former Mayor Bloomberg first published the energy usage data of downtown buildings, affecting the market in a way similar to the fuel efficiency stickers on cars. For such data to be a market force requires delivery by sensors in real time.
There is ambivalence. After London, Baltimore has the highest level of public street camera surveillance in the world, certainly an iteration of “Big Brother” no matter how useful in crime prevention, detection and resolution. Smart phones can empower demonstrators to organize effectively from Cairo to Istanbul and from Tehran to Baltimore, but authoritarian powers can just as easily switch the data stream off, or worse, use it against citizens. Trite as it is to say, there is much truth to the statement that technologies are just tools and it is up to us what we do with them. Knowledge is power, and the exponential expansion of knowledge at an unprecedented pace has implications good and bad. Socrates’ insight was that the more we know, the more aware we become of how little we know. Our increased knowledge of cities is partly offset by problems of increasing size and complexity. The debate cannot be if we should have data collection, sensors and smart cities at all – it is a matter of survival – but we must see how we can assure that people benefit in the end, and not just corporations or sinister forces of oppression.