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. 

What is a Smart City?

BK: Seeing as how this blog is supposed to be about Smart Cities, I thought we could start with the basics: what is a Smart City?  

HK: A small and easy problem then…

BK: Hey, got to start somewhere.  I’d start with a statement – a city is somewhere which acts to concentrate economic activity. People migrate to a city because it is easier to find jobs, make connections, and so establish a community and a career.  To me, a Smart city makes all these things work better (i.e. with fewer barriers to entry, more positive outcomes and fewer downsides) by the deft application of intelligence – oh, and maybe even use of technology.  The technology is only one tool in the box to make a city a good place in which to live, work and play.

HK: So the question is not really, ‘What is a Smart City’? (Maybe we should change the title), but why a city at all? We agree that a city is a place which facilitates connection and participation. Ideally, if we’re going to get fiscal, a city is a place which facilitates innovation and economic output. Despite new technologies making it possible to connect with other individuals over huge distances, people are still moving en masse to civic centers: London, San Francisco, Singapore. For me, the place of a smart city is to enhance the connection and innovation that are characteristic of a successful metropolis.

BK: Yes – it would appear that a city is, at least in an evolutionary sense,  a ‘successful’ way of going on. Success here is not necessarily moral or ethical – it just means that it is a pattern that keeps on re-appearing, and seems to last. The moral and ethical sides form a whole additional area of debate – which would be fascinating and could consume a considerable amount of space, and malt whisky (HK: ok, you’re on..).  But here, at least, we not making moral judgements about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but exploring what happens ‘if’… assuming people are people, not machines or saints. Hence ‘if this goes on’…

HK: So, current ‘Physical Cities’ work because of the density of the connections made within that civic environment, how its network allows citizens to communicate and innovate.

Now, we can develop (or support) a technological overlay that can also make connections without the constraints of geographical distance and location. As well as this, we can establish a technological overlay which catalyses the potential of the very specific local environment of the city.

BK: A ‘Smart City’ is therefore both physical and digital, local and virtual – a new hybrid beasty. We can conceive of a ‘city in function’ which adapts to or goes beyond physical location.

HK: Aye, theorists like Benjamin R Barber talk about ‘Glocality’ – where a city acts as a node within a global network, but I propose the word ‘vlocality’ is equally important: how we understand the interaction between the digital and physical urban networks. (Though this leads to a whole new chat about buzzwords).

BK: Buzzwords indeed….  You mean I’m going to have to read up about it. Darn.

HK: “Darn”?

BK: Anyway, that would mean a ‘smart city’ is an environment that does have a physical space in which people work, live and play. But, that physical space is enhanced, using technology, to make that work as well as we can, allowing more value to be created for any given level of resource use.  And whilst we do start with a city being a bounded area, it does not need to be limited to that  – a smart city could be a dispersed across many locations…

HK: Oh good, another question: where is a Smart City? [link to follow]. And, of course, if city networks evolve naturally, why do we bother with Smart? [link to follow].