Where is a Smart City? (Part Two)



In which Ben and Hannah continue trying to nail down smart city boundaries – and how they interact at different levels

HK: In the last section of this chat- Where is a Smart City (Part One) – we started with how we might consistently define the boundaries of a city.  We saw this as a functional practice (a dense network of economic and cultural encounters) rather than a physical boundary of urban/suburban/rural. This is partly because cities occupy virtual and ‘real’ spaces, and communities in residence as well as communities in transit.

BK: Yep. And we finished with the question of how to define boundaries within a city, and how they interact:

‘If a city is a dense trading network, and should be adaptive to the behaviour and needs of its inhabitants – how do we define boundaries in a way that covers ethnographic, social, demographic and built differences, particularly if the inhabitants disagree about where the boundaries should be?’

HK:  And how can we consider these boundaries on complex, multiple levels without being divisive? So – how do we get a city to work together at every relevant scale – including beyond the physical, now we have a virtual capability?

BK: I think yes – annoyingly, better phrased than my version – which means that the viewpoint of a city as one big physical entity is (and has always been) inadequate. Reference the idea of London as a collection of villages, constantly part of the property.  Nothing new, well trodden ground – but important

HK: So, to the rub: what different does it make to ‘Smart’?

BK: It’s already clear that digital and urban spaces allow communities to exist as ‘threads’ which are not always apparent. Whether it’s positive – groups of friends keeping together on social media, the ability to maintain much larger contacts through things like LinkedIn, or dangerous as evidenced by the use of web to support radicalisation and extreme points of view by bypassing filters such as editorial and societal standards. An individual thread can pass through all these loops to create multiple communities and perspectives.

HK:  It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between safe spaces and echo chambers, communities and conspiracies.

BK: Or simply the excessive use of un-curated social media as a way to push certain personalities and their politics.

HK: But if you are considering such things, what about the way these ‘threads’, as you call them, integrate into multiplicit, productive communities? With processes like micro-loans with Kiva or Kickstarter, diverse individuals can align without even communicating to fund a cause or enterprise. Or, through unique experiences, contribute effectively to conversations involving access or discrimination. Or, aligning both through projects like Better Reykjavik where “threads” weave to effectively prioritise local government action.

BK: From that perspective, yes – how do we encourage and harness the reach of such capability with the ability to support the richer environment as those threads intertwine.

HK: This is where ‘boundaries’ come in – how can we see clearly areas of engagement or interaction, such as pathways to work or places of residence, in a way that can perceive the individual as a centre of an intersection of identities, boundaries, ‘threads’ – causes and effects – while also being able to compensate for or respond to broad scope issues, such as vehicle collisions or ‘Green’ energy. A rich tapestry, rather than an ill-fitting flat rug. How can we create a cross-section of these nodes, map and process them effectively, creating the Smart City as MVP?

BK: There is a major implication of this:  if we chase the physical and open data and ‘intelligent city management’ to the exclusion of supporting the individual narratives, then we have lost a lot. It’s harder to centre a society around individuals, their interactions and their lives than it is to centre it around big civic services, buildings, governments and so on – but those big institutions take on a life of their own and drive a structure in which the institutions chase their own survival at the expense of the individual.  

HK:  Looking at it from the perspective of “city as a service” to the citizen, this has big implications on the way we treat the people. A smart city would enrich the paths we take and respond to them effectively. So, Edinburgh is trialling sensors in the bins to detect if they are full, meaning the services provided by the city can empty them as and when needed, rather than spending time and public money on lengthy emptying routes. Or, in Glasgow, the city lighting has different responses to different areas: the Riverside Walkway focuses on sensations of safety by brightening lights for passage, while on Gordon Street more focus is on real time data on sound and air quality, as the area is busier.

BK:  And again – trying to nudge people into a variety of pathways isn’t completely new – in Venice, they often give multiple routes to the same destination.

HK: So back to the question – ‘where’ is a smart city? The ‘Smart’ capability isn’t in the city control rooms or just in the infrastructure – if we treat ‘smart’ as an end point in itself then we’re misplacing and wasting investment..

BK: The smart is at the interface between the city (and its services) and the citizens. The city is the whole set of interactions those citizens can take in a day, including both those that are local and remote.  So a smart city is not an infrastructure system – it’s a set of calls and responses. The ‘boundaries’ we spoke about earlier are the arenas and datasets in which this intelligent interface should manifest, between individual, physical and virtual worlds.

Case Study: Traffic Lights and Smartphone Sights

Ground Level Traffic Lights
Ground level traffic lights, taken from Dezeen.com

In which Hannah and Ben discuss the merits of reflecting user behaviours rather than resisting them

HK: At least three towns that I’ve heard of in the last year – in Australia, Germany and The Netherlands – have embedded traffic lights at pavement level to warn Smartphone users that they are passing onto a road.

Of course, I found this on the internet…  so groups are either praising it as a great idea, or they’re vehemently arguing that solutions like this are just spending a lot of money to help ‘bad behaviour’. There is a tendency to throw moralities at new technologies, whether they are inherently harmful or not, but it’s true that smartphone users don’t always have their sights set upwards, at street signs and corners, or road edges.

BK: One of the funnier sights is seeing a smartphone user walk straight into a bus shelter or lamppost.  Except when it was me!

HK: What a divvy. [Trans: ‘Idiot’ in Geordie dialect]. Though a lot of people I’ve met (including me sometimes) don’t know the names of streets they pass through daily because they’re using lines on their phone map and GPS to guide them. One article, describing the initiative in the Netherlands, calls them ‘smartphone zombies’, which comes across as inherently pejorative. But why shouldn’t cities reflect that actual habits of their citizens?

BK: Well, I guess that you could work that two ways – to what extent should the cities adapt to the habits of the citizen, versus to what extent should the city shape the habits of the citizen.  In this particular area – the very existence of kerbs and traffic lights shape the habits of citizens, in order to separate pedestrian and wheeled traffic. The ‘woonerf’ areas in the Netherlands, shared space in the UK or shared zones in Australia and New Zealand form a contrast. Isn’t this traffic light discussion another version of experimenting with adapt to, vs attempt to shape (aka nudge) vs attempt to control? I put three options in deliberately – as if you have two in, then you are limited to “either or” – a dualist approach which limits our thinking.  About as stable as a two-legged stool.

HK: Back to the subject please.

BK: Ah well. Anyhow whilst there are all sorts of positive outcomes of adapting to citizen habits, even with a bit of nudge: we have to take secondary consequences into consideration. For instance, the £1M cost to the NHS of falls because of the new ‘healthier/low pollution’ trams in Edinburgh; the public health benefits around encouraging more physical activity, vs ‘keeping people safe’ with kids walking to school.

HK: Then again, floor level traffic lights might reduce car/pedestrian collisions, safe police and medical services time and money. Inserting safety measures into residents’ lines of sight does seem pretty standard practice, like making sure stop signs can be seen from car level, or traffic lights at side-window level for the front car in a queue. – a habit in France, but not in the UK. Attempts to change the pattern to cope with ‘smartphone zombies’ could, I suppose, use other means,like more intense ‘crossing’ sounds, for example.

BK: But these could be could be startling and harmful to anyone else in the area. Light change seems fairly innocuous. Though – consider the partially sighted!  Road markings, and traffic lights, should be visible in all contingencies.

HK: And implementation for embedded lights is quite dear. There must be better options than digging them into the road. For example, there’s a huge trend right now into upscaling city lighting systems with new nodes, effective sensors [which should be next week’s blog] – why not attach a projection of floor level lighting?

BK: A colleague of mine – Steve Smith at Northumberland – pointed this one out – if you project from existing street furniture, then you don’t have to dig into the road surfaces; you can project from a point so it’s much easier to maintain; and the effect works (though admittedly not as effectively) even if the surface is covered with mud, water or snow.

But that’s just the practical. We have to consider all citizens – from the harried parent with children in hand, the hearing or sighting impaired, through to the inattentive mobile phone user. If we were being really sophisticated, we could consider combining sensors with warnings – so if someone stepped across a line into a dangerous junction, then not only would the lights under their feet flash, but a warning sound could go off.  

HK: So it’s passive and quiet – until needed, though I’d imagine that software like that isn’t cheap. But we’ve established that our cities aren’t full of zombies, with strategists as the brains:

BK: Well, sometimes around the Bigg Market in Newcastle on a Saturday morning?

HK: I’ll give you that. But civic action is most effective at keeping its citizens happy and healthy if it responds effectively to all behaviours, and their dangers.

BK: Seriously, a major mistake – at least in my opinion – is to think of a city, or indeed, any sufficiently complex system, as a machine that can be designed in which each cog behaves. It isn’t.  It’s an active mix of behaviours, interactions and decisions. This is an evolution of behaviour problem, not an engineering problem.

Setting up an environment in which that independence of decisions is understood and respected, but people are firmly guided away from behaviour which damages others (in this case, speeding, jumping red lights and jaywalking without care) requires us to consider each decision maker and shape the communal environment such that we strike a balance we can all live with.  

HK: So the advantage of ‘Smart’ in this case is that we can adapt that environment more accurately to a greater variety of behaviours?

BK: Yup.  So we can support a richer, more diverse environment.  Which loops neatly back to our second blog – ‘Why bother with Smart’’!


Why bother with Smart?


BK:  In the first blog, we discussed what a smart city was, but this triggers another discussion: why bother with Smart? Cities are, clearly, a pretty successful pattern already; is the ‘smart’ aspect something that we need, and if so, why?

One of my friends (Yes, Hannah I have at least one) did ask me this: what is the use of “Smart”? This might be a perspective hinging on the distance of age, good or bad. This friend said he used to be enamoured of ‘toys’ – more and better all the time.  As he gets older his views have mellowed somewhat: he thinks more along the lines of what is really needed – what makes a good way to live.  The concepts such as ‘Slow food’ and ‘Hygge’ might come in here.

HK: Good god, don’t ‘hygge’ at me. Though, people love hygge. Maybe they’ll come to the blog looking for ‘hygge’. Anyone will tell you that I can be a bit old fashioned myself: fires, whisky, books, and a phone that takes 1000 years to turn on. I’m never happier than ‘hygging’ it out.

BK: Please don’t bring puns into this.

HK: Sorry. There’s certainly something to be said for the nostalgia movement in tech at the moment: Pokémon Go, the Nokia 3310 renewal: retro is still hanging on to a la mode.

However, I’d suggest that a Smart City isn’t about using tech as a pretty ribbon; it isn’t always very glamorous. The amount of people I’ve said ‘Smart City’ to and they say ‘Oh, yeah, I read something about a talking fridge.’

The Internet of Things is a big buzzword for marketers, but statistics are showing that though Smart entertainment systems, already luxury items, are being picked up easily by the market, but or ‘Green’ or ‘Connected Home’ technologies, like talking fridges, aren’t received with quite so much enthusiasm.  The initial down-payments are huge, and the benefits are a long time coming. A low income family might want to spend extra savings on something that brings their whole family joy or escape, rather than a fridge that tells them when their milk is low.

BK:I completely concede that point .  <ok I might have brought it up just to concede it, but then, I’m annoying that way>.  And given our fridge is at least 15 years old (and still chugging along) the turnover rate is rather lower than the average digital fashion item.  We have to understand both threads – the thread of ‘onward ever onward’ and the counterflow of ‘living life well with less’ – largely because most of the world’s population do, inevitably, have less.

HK: In a way, but also the short and long term benefits of entertainment items are more apparent to the consumer. Smart technologies come across as fashionable, rather than useful. Smart strategy must focus on not both immediate benefits, like reduction in energy consumption, and change to the culture of interaction between people and the place they live. Which is why ‘Smart Cities’ are less about the bonny ribbon, but more the structural integrity of the parcel – the box and the duct tape. Or another way of looking at it, the wedge that jams into the gap between where we are and where we might want to be.  Why aren’t people lingering in city centers? Who is unable to access the disabled parking they need, and how can we help? How to monitor traffic flow, and make it more efficient and reduce pollution? How do we react efficiently to problems raised by citizens like potholes or theft? Sometimes that technology is snazzy, with ticket kiosks, apps, smart streetlights. Sometimes it’s less so, using infrastructures in place, like buses or public bins, and developing a culture of efficiency, anticipating needs and facilitating the inherent action of a city.

BK: That’s a good discussion – what are the different angles of ‘Smart’?  It shouldn’t be just about visible technology or ‘massive compute power’, but a useful underlay.  I believe <warning – somewhat ethically oriented comment coming up> that it would be optimal if a city could be felt by its citizens to serve all its citizens. So no matter who you are, from what background, it becomes possible to find a way in which to live what feels like a decent life.

HK: Live ‘Well’ and Prosper.

BK: Hah. But yes, you could swap places with anybody in the city and make a good life from there regardless of identity. <somewhat ethical comment over>.  

HK:  Wow, well, I think the baseline service of a city (minimum viable product, perhaps?) is the one to which all citizens have sufficient levels of access. A high income citizen might be able to whizz around in a Lamborghini (I’m looking at you, madman who almost crushed my bike), but a low income citizen, or citizen with a disability or impairment for example, need access to appropriate publicly funded transport, or space for movement in the city centres. A Smart City should be able to preempt or at least react efficiently to the needs of its extremely varied groups of citizens, and help them access good work, education, medical help, or the shops they need. Then the cycle continues at optimum; detection, response, adaptation, access.

BK: There is a major environmental point – let’s assume that people want to live what they regard as a decent life.  What’s a decent life? Maybe, roughly speaking, it is to be financially independent as an individual or a family group, and able to continue in that vein in an environment such as ‘lively central london’, suburban LA, or a decent flat or apartment in Edinburgh. These could be regarded as ‘aspirational’ for many, but seen as impossible to many more. However, there are a lot of people in the world, and its resources are not infinite – we cannot sustain that kind of privileged lifestyle for everybody at the current level of environmental load.  We therefore have three choices (open to challenge!):

Ration accessibility to this kind of lifestyle. This rationing might be through economics (we have the power and will keep out those that don’t) or other means. In this case, some will have, and some will have not, and this will be a continuing source of tension.

HK: This hasn’t worked so far. A huge number of people don’t have access to basic needs, such as safety and shelter, let alone access to work opportunities and sufficient healthcare. And half the world’s wealth is owned by eight men. It’s a hard pass from me.

BK: Change the lifestyle to a point at which it can be sustained. My kids always got one answer if they started the ‘no fair’ angle: no, fair would be to have median life opportunities for the whole planet – which is way, way, way below our rather privileged position. I’m not sure that this option would be popular with the people currently in a position of advantage.

In addition, If we don’t change our current processes of consumption, and globally we expect the western consumer lifestyle as an aspirational ideal, it is unsustainable. That would lead to a Malthusian solution. Not nice.

HK: OK…Let’s turn down the melodrama a touch. Also, because that brings you right back to option one.

BK: Third option: Increase the efficiency of our living styles such that it is possible to sustain the population continuously over time, and live a decent life. Happy, healthy, and economically independent.

HK: And that’s what it’s all about.

BK: We’re not doing the hokey cokey.

HK: True, but we are trying to act in unison. At the moment, all three of these options are occurring – not always by active choice.  Economics is an effective way of rationing accessibility to limited resources. In the US and UK, the ‘austerity measures’ and reduction in aid programmes is reducing the lifestyle of a fair proportion of the global population.

BK: Famine, reduction in opportunity, and structural inequality, as some examples, are cutting off significant proportions of global populations from the access afforded to the privileged few. But technology and intelligence can work to minimise the risks we’re taking- we are increasing the efficiency of our living styles. There is an argument about ‘GDP per unit energy’: things that support city activity are becoming environmentally cheaper (e.g. LED lighting, electric cars). If we can use our resources intelligently, and make things work better with less effort, then our headroom increases.

HK: Hence duct tape, not pretty ribbon. The ‘why’ of a smart city is to accelerate that third option as fast as possible: use ‘smart’ technology’ to increase efficiency in local and global arenas, paying particular attention to the specific needs of different peoples and processes, and their priorities. Then sharing that information around. The last option is the only one which works for everyone in the long term.