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.