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06/11/2015

Smart cities: Old bytes in new cables?

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Smart city / Shutterstock

There's nothing new about 'smart' cities, says Kris Hartley, but modern technology can improve the urban experience - if we look beyond its novelty and harness it intelligently

Kris HartleyBooming urbanisation, combined with technology’s seemingly boundless potential, is triggering predictions of smart cities as an urban techno-utopia. Marketing this vision skips straight to dessert; the mechanics of service coordination bore the public, but images of globular mega-structures and hovering pod-cars capture imaginations. The sets of 1950’s-era sci-fi movies can finally be a reality. Beyond superficial lures there is substance in the smart city model, but how revolutionary is it?

Cities have forever “smartened.” Aqueducts were survival technology in the Roman era; dykes have long kept Dutch cities dry and productive; electricity made night into day during the industrial revolution; computer systems now monitor everything from highway flow to hazard mitigation.

The “smart city” concept is another instalment in a long-running cavalcade of urban innovations; it applies new technologies to solve old problems. This may be the best of what urban thinking can currently offer, but its transformative power is so far unproven.

"What is already clear is that technology cannot substitute for folly"

Scale of impact can clarify this issue: is the extraordinary optimization of mundane administrative processes more transformative than small improvements in overall quality of life?

What is already clear is that technology cannot substitute for folly. By itself, it fails to rectify bad policy, solve socio-economic inequity, or lift struggling economies out of poverty. It is a tool more than a solution, and a city’s fate still pivots on leadership and citizen engagement. The challenge in mobilising the variety of disparate smart city technologies is to connect them through an integrated system that has a broader purpose beyond efficiency.

All that computes is not progress. Smart city technology should be evaluated for its ability to improve the livelihoods of citizens, particularly the less fortunate. A common argument claims that internet access lifts all ships, but this narrow view of ICT potential fails to acknowledge that the benefits of technological progress often flow upwards.

To distinguish itself from legacy urban technologies, the smart city effort must articulate how it impacts all citizens, beyond their bus schedules. One must ask: “smart”, but for what purpose?

Virtual as the modern era is becoming, ICT still serves timeless human needs. People spend nearly two hours a day on social media, not to fetishise technology but to share experiences with others.

“Smart” is already a personal reality. As an urban reality, technocratic marvels like traffic light sequencing, disaster warning systems, and even robot-police improve efficiency and sustainability.

However, what seems smart now will eventually occupy the filing cabinet of obsolete breakthroughs, alongside castle moats, steamboats, and MySpace. By contrast, transcendent technology functions politely with legacy systems, traditions, and diverse needs, while maintaining the value of its novelty; this is rare company.

Smart cities are an evolutionary step, but can they be revolutionary?

Kris Hartley is a visiting lecturer in economics at Vietnam National University and a PhD Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, University of Singapore

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