Smart Cities are for people and build by people too using the apprpriate technology
by Remington Tonar and Ellis Talton – 9 July 2019
Smart Cities Are Built By Smart People, Not Smart Things
“If the essence of urban development is individual action, then a city can only be as smart as its citizens.”
Michael Batty, Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London
Despite their recent surge in popularity, smart cities are not a new idea. In fact, their origins can be traced back a hundred years to the work of early 20th century urban planner Le Corbusier, who understood the home as a “machine for living in.”
Today, advances in technologies ranging from sensors to big data to broadband to artificial intelligence are making smart cities a reality. There are already several examples of smart cities built from the ground up in other countries and a growing number of U.S. cities are moving to augment their existing infrastructure with smart technologies. Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) Sidewalk Labs, for example, recently revealed details to build what is likely the world’s most advanced smart city in Toronto’s Quayside district. The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) also recently launched a new smart cities institute in collaboration with New York University to advance the discussion on how technology can accelerate urban progress. “The drive to make cities ‘smarter’ is all about harnessing data and digital technology to meet the challenge of doing more with less,” said Former USCM President and incumbent Columbia, SC Mayor Stephen Benjamin when announcing the new institute. Indeed, there is little doubt that cutting-edge Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT) can greatly enhance the efficiency, connectedness and convenience of our cities.
Yet, amid all of the enthusiasm over smart cities, the most important element of any city is being forgotten: citizens themselves.
The Sidewalk Labs proposal, for instance, has been widely criticized for its lack of attention to user privacy to citizen participation. Yes, smart city technologies are meant to improve citizens’ lives, but true improvement begins with improving people, not just the places they live. The technologically-enabled smart city of the future will have little hope for sustained prosperity if its people are not themselves smart. On a basic level, smart technologies will do little to unlock economic and social value if they’re serving a populous that’s ill equipped to capitalize on the efficiencies and opportunities they create. It also takes thoughtful citizens to correctly interpret data produced by smart devices, to know when it’s best to rely on automated systems and when to reassert their agency. Indeed, the success of cities depends greatly on the ability of individual citizens, groups of citizens and even corporate actors to intelligently engage with each other and their environment. As University College London urbanist Michael Batty writes in Inventing Future Cities, “The kinds of automation that currently characterize the smart city are only intelligent or smart insofar as we, ourselves, use them intelligently. It is we who must potentially be smart rather than the devices we use.”
There are a host of studies that suggest that investment in human capital has been just as, if not more, important than technology in creating economically vibrant cities. The work of Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and MIT’s Albert Saiz, for instance, demonstrates that education is the most reliable driver of urban growth after a city’s climate. “The single best way to create a smart city,” Glaeser writes in his bestselling book Triumph of the City, “is to create schools that attract and retain able people.” City leaders must work to pair investments in developing smarter roadways, railways and utilities with investments in developing smarter and more innovative citizens. This educational investment cannot be confined to STEM subjects either, but must also include a more relevant version of the humanities and a healthy dose of the arts if it hopes to cultivate citizens capable of understanding each other and exercising creativity to improve society.
City leaders also need to recognize that technology ought to be used to connect humans not just devices, that soft infrastructure, e.g. educational system, is just as important as its hard infrastructure, e.g. its transit system. To borrow an illustration from MIT’s Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudei in The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life, “A traffic system of autonomous cars could be optimized for maximum throughput, or maximum sharing within social networks, or for maximum novelty and surprise.” Which you choose is influenced by what it is you’re trying to optimize, the movement of cars or the wellbeing of people.
Officials who appreciate these distinctions would do well to broaden their understanding of what makes a smart city smart. Ratti and his colleagues at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, for example, favor the term senseable cities over smart cities. Senseable cities are human-centric and not entirely planned, leaving room for adaptation and exploration. They respond to real-time human needs by integrating systems and citizens, digital and physical networks, infrastructural and social innovations.
For those determined to use the term smart cities, Boyd Cohen of EADA Business School in Barcelona offers a more holistic definition of smart cities. “The smart cities movement, at its core,” he writes in The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur, “is about how cities can embrace innovation in everything they do.” It is not, as the USCM characterized it, “all about harnessing data and digital technology” (emphasis mine), but rather being—to again quote Cohen—”more innovative and efficient in the use of public funds, more innovative in their willingness to experiment, more innovative in supporting citizen cocreation…and more innovative in their support for urban entrepreneurial ecosystems.” Cohen’s smart city is just as concerned with developing smart people and companies as it is with deploying smart technologies. Its objective isn’t just saturating cities with sensors, but investing in human capital to saturate citizens with opportunities and ensure everyone can participate in the creation of their city’s future.
This element of co-creation and participatory placemaking is important in the work of both Cohen and Ratti, who—along with pioneering urban theorist Jane Jacobs—see the future of cities being determined by people rather than plans. “Cities,” Jacobs wrote in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everybody.” Top down government investment in technology can generate tremendous value, but nothing can replace the bottom up power of empowered and engaged citizens and enterprises co-creating the city they call home.
There is no doubt that emerging technologies can help make our lives more efficient, more productive and more convenient. ICT and IoT are already transforming cities around the world into hyperconnected, ubiquitous networks that will be able to optimize everything from our commute to our energy consumption. Nevertheless, these technologies cannot by themselves create a more innovative, educated, talented, resilient and empowered citizenry. Smart things cannot replace smart people. If city leaders hope to see a return on their smart city investments and realize the promise of urban living, they must also invest in cultivating citizens capable of maximizing the opportunities that the city of tomorrow will bring. Smart infrastructure can help facilitate value creation, but people are still the protagonists in the urban drama.