Technology, data and sensors – the architecture of the Internet of Things – are raising the IQs of cities around the world. They call the emerging sentience a ‘Smart City’. Connect everything and everyone, and the possibilities for efficiency, comfort, fun and human wellbeing go north fast.
There are all kinds of benefits in connecting beings and things, not least: low energy costs and maintenance, on-demand public transport, congestion-free traffic, city-wide Wi-Fi, apps for revealing empty parking spaces, super-fast immigration, poor air-quality alerts, remote air traffic control , solar-powered phone-charging park benches, and cool bike-sharing schemes. Over in Rio de Janeiro, football-loving people in a favela can play the beautiful game into the night through powering lighting with their own footsteps. The floodlights are powered by kinetic tiles under the Astroturf.
The trick, as with all ideas, is to work back from people and not forward through machines, in order to make people’s life better. So fit technology to a problem rather than installing technology for its own sake, protect against hijackers, and work hard to keep Big Brother at bay.
Things don’t truly get smart until a city uses technology to respond to the needs, wants and dreams of its individual people. A smart city makes a commitment to system-level thinking but also it oozes with empathy. The Boston city website curates information through content based on how a resident thinks about an issue, such as moving or owning a car (c.f. organising info by department). Singapore’s elderly people can use a swipe-card at zebra crossings to give them more time to cross.
The power of an idea is intense, just so long as it improves people’s lives. It’s the emotional quotient that counts most, and that comes back to leadership. As American political theorist Benjamin Barber said: “Above all we need smart mayors and smart citizens, not smart cities.”