The Smart City - The New Urban Utopia?

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How we live in the future has been fascinating us for over a century, starting with the Futurist movement visualising highly industrialised and mechanised cities. Illustrations of flying cars entering mega cities, and cult films such as Metropolis (Fritz Lang 1927) and more recently Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982) have helped bring visions of future cities to life.

Whilst these visions haven’t fully materialised, significant aspects have and are becoming reality. We are seeing the mega city with its skyscraper landscape emerge in locations around the world, and even personal drones are being prototyped that would certainly deliver an aspect of this “traditional” vision of the future.

Of course time doesn’t stand still, and in terms of our urban future we have a series of considerations that the original Futurists didn’t need to take into account. These include: the very real need to develop an environmentally sustainable future for our planet and to accommodate increases in population. You can add to that: the need to be socially responsible, creating life enhancing urban environments, the need to respect people to ensure harmonious and inclusive communities thrive, adapting to changing demographics and ensuring economic prosperity. Put simply our world is complex, and this is having an impact right down to specific neighbourhoods.

Set against this backdrop, technology (the internet, connectivity and data) is facilitating the emergence of Smart Cities. This is a vision of the future that’s happening now. Although, unlike other visions, it’s one that will continue to alter as our digital knowledge, skills and capabilities develop further.

In terms of defining what makes a city Smart, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, in their Our Smart Region project report, explain the concept of Smart as follows:

“Smart has its origins in computing, as an acronym for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology. Smart is now commonly used to describe a wide range of networked and data-driven technologies which detect conditions and respond to them. Based on automated analysis of data these systems will automatically adjust their function – or the function of other systems – to improve performance.”

Cities across the UK are embracing the concept of the Smart City in order to improve the performance and quality of service provision. This includes; utilities, citizen services, connectivity and transport. To help illustrate this, here are some examples:

Cardiff Council have announced that, as part of their Smart City agenda, they will be replacing all residential street lights with LED lanterns. In addition to reducing operating costs and CO2 levels, the lights are also going to be capable of self-reporting faults to City’s central computer system offering further cost and efficiency benefits.

Bristol has adopted a citizen centric approach for its Smart City strategy. Called the Bristol Approach is has seen new initiatives put in place including one to measure the levels of damp in homes. This is illustrative of the City’s aim to provide solutions to the problems that matter to its residents.

Glasgow is actively exploring how data can be used to: make the city safer, citizens more healthy and to improve how people move around the city. Their ambition also extends to finding ways to both save and generate energy. Their work has already resulted in creating a cycling app to support the Active Travel agenda. Importantly, Engagement Hubs have been used to provide information about Future City Glasgow to its people.

There are plenty more examples of Smart City initiatives taking place in cities across the UK and it’s worth doing an Internet search to look at further examples.

Harnessing data to improve the daily life of citizens represents a new vision for the future. It will provide cost savings for councils, and has the potential to support and enhance our daily lives. You can almost see the advert showing people living a seamlessly connected life, gliding through the city from meetings, to coffee shops, to the park, the gym and finally home. Of course the sun will always be shining too.

However, as we’ve seen with previous visions of the future, things don’t always go quite to plan. As we develop the Smart City it’s worthing considering, even anticipating, the issues that could arise, and possibly result in the unintentional creation of an urban dystopia. Some of these issues include:

Digital Exclusion

As the Smart City evolves people without a digital footprint face being excluded. In many cases these will be people most in need of physical services. We are already seeing banks withdrawing from the High Street, and understandably increasing numbers of organisations are looking to take advantage of the cost efficiencies that digital service delivery can achieve. This potentially makes having a physical presence less economically viable, and runs the risk of making it harder for people to access advice, information, support and even their money.

One option to help prevent this could be to develop Neighbourhood Centres, where key service providers share a single High Street unit to save costs. Such centres could include a bank clerk to provide banking services on behalf of all banks, Post Office services, a council team member, housing association staff etc.

This would also help to ensure that city neighbourhoods continue to be the cornerstones of their respective communities.

Data Security

This is obvious, however the more dependant we become on data to support our daily lives, the more secure the data has to be. Even with the highest levels of data security, having a comprehensive Plan B to deal with any data compromises will be essential.

Autonomous Vehicles

From monorails to flying cars the future has always offered various visions of how we will travel. Currently Active Travel is being fully embraced, and this offers exceptional environmental and personal health benefits. Success here would see the volume of journeys by car decrease, and in turn help to make our urban environments less congested, healthier and more pleasant places to live in.

However, when autonomous vehicles become readily available we could potentially see an increase in vehicles on our roads. Think in terms of a commuter, what could be better than jumping into an autonomous vehicle and just letting it drive to your place of work. You can start work from the moment you leave your house, have a coffee, even eat your breakfast or simply recline your seat and enjoy some more sleep.

This is a concern, and raises the question: How will public transport be able to compete with the benefits autonomous vehicles will be seen to offer? For example, as the cars will be electric drivers will consider them to be “green”, and the car itself will become a personal workspace, so it will be seen to increase personal productivity. For commuters this would bring to an end the need to get to a train station, wait for a train, and travel in what could be crowded conditions.

When the driver gets close to work, if there’s traffic congestion the car can be abandoned and set to parking mode, and the commute completed on foot. Meanwhile the car could be set to find a free parking space that may be many miles away in a residential street.

None of this will be good for the environment, and it won’t encourage the use of public transport.

An innovative manufacturer may spot the opportunity to produce short range, basic urban autonomous vehicles that would prove ideal for children to use on their school run. After all, if you’re not driving the car, and the cars are allowed to travel with no passengers, it would difficult to prevent children from using them, and no doubt parental controls could be added. It will only take the first few children to start arriving at school in their own vehicles for pester power to kick in. Parents will use “safety” to rationalise their decision to make these purchases, and before you know it the streets around schools will be filled with even more cars parked for the duration of the school day.

This will have a further impact on the quality of life in our urban environment, and would make children less active at time when we need them to embrace the benefits of a more active lifestyle.

Yes this sounds all very negative, however consider how the automotive industry will embrace autonomous vehicles, combined with in road charging technology that’s currently under development, and this could well become an unwelcome vision of the future.

This is where, with the Smart City, there is a genuine need to fully consider which technological advances will provide genuine benefits that tru enhance the quality of life in our urban environment.

Robotics

If you take the example of street lights self reporting faults, this is just one step away from an autonomous vehicle fitted with a robotic arm turning up to fix them. A fully automated process, that could be exceptionally cost effective. Then apply this capability to a whole raft of jobs that people currently undertake, and before you know it we’ll be living in a very different world. This could see robots weeding and planting our parks, cleaning our streets, serving our coffee, along with making and installing many of the things we buy. Even thinking skills can be replaced by AI.

This vision does come with a snag, it would leave increasing numbers of people with nothing to do, and no means of making money. This robotic future may offer many benefits in terms of efficiency, but we have to ask what type of future will it create, who would benefit from it and importantly who would suffer?

In fact, this future seems very clinical, unlike humans who are highly individualistic. Although increasingly being siloed by social media, ultimately people are social. We benefit and thrive from interacting with each other, and so as Smart City develops it is crucial to carefully consider what we want to achieve and how it will be achieved.

We need to ask if it is essential to embrace all technological advances, and with the ones we do embrace understand that positive economic benefits can also deliver negative impacts for people.

In this respect it makes sense to bring multiple agendas together including Smart City, the Foundational Economy and the Circular Economy. This would help to ensure that our urban futures would not just be data driven, but also community and environment focussed.

Ultimately, we are rapidly heading into the future. Unlike previous visions of the future, this time technology is the driving force, and this in itself is constantly evolving. This is happening at a time when there are serious concerns for the environment, in multiple ways society is becoming increasingly divided, and public services continue to operate under significant financial pressures. Collectively this creates an exceptionally complex situation for our urban environments. Whilst Smart City has the potential to offer substantial benefits, this alone won’t achieve a future utopia, and importantly care needs to be taken to ensure we don’t inadvertently create a dystopian future for our cities.