How can cities be ‘smart’ if they can’t think?

Matt Coetzee, Global Leader Planning and Environment, Aurecon, compares the smart cities of the world.

From 30 000 feet, you could be forgiven for thinking that a city has a pulse. On camera, time lapse photography of the morning in-rush of traffic, followed by the evening exodus, looks like a beating heart. The road networks in and out of cities create constant streams of cars – they are the veins that transfer cars out to its extremities. Zoom out even further, and footage taken over a longer period reveals how the city ‘grows’ as its borders expand. Its power network simulates the electrical pulses that race around a nervous system.

The further you zoom out, the more closely a city starts to resemble a living organism…but if our cities are living organisms, they are still pretty basic forms of life. They have no ‘brain’; and, in most cases, no cognitive feedback loop as to what is happening around their ‘organs’ (regions). It’s ironic that our most sophisticated form of living, the urban conglomeration, is also the dumbest.

What characteristics should future smart cities have?

But is all of this about to change? The internet of things, sensors embedded in ‘intelligent’ infrastructure and autonomous vehicles, holds promise of radical progress for the future of our cities. Is the birth of the smart city going to take this amoeba-like organism, struggling for survival at the bottom of a primordial lake, and move it into a sophisticated life form? If our cities are about to evolve from something that simply survives, into a thinking, feeling entity that can self-regulate and self-modulate – we need to ask: What characteristics should these smart city ‘beings’ have? What sort of intelligence do we want them to have; and what will the benefits of that be? How will we ensure that the best characteristics will establish and grow and the others will be eliminated? These are critical questions!

Smart cities around the world are at different levels of maturity. In developing countries experiencing rapid urbanisation and steep growth in GDP, they have the potential to solve some of urbanisation’s wicked problems, such as congestion, social inequality and exposure to natural disasters. Pushed by multinational tech companies such as IBM, Microsoft, General Electric, Siemens, Oracle, Google and Cisco, billions of dollars are being poured into them. Usually built on greenfield land as city extensions, their shiny new creations – Songdo in South Korea, Masdar in the UAE, Konza Techno City in Kenya, or Palava in India, for example – are viewed as wonders of ingenuity.

Do residents benefit?

But are these cities really ‘smart’?  Now over 10 years old, Songdo is barely 60% occupied, with much of its smart technology on hold for the moment. Masdar is well short of its green targets, disconnected from surrounding conurbations and unpopulated. Konza is 37 frustrating miles away from Nairobi and empty – this may as well be a million miles. Palava requires residents to carry socially exclusive ‘smart ID cards’. The technology these cities employ is impressive but does it really allow the city to function in a smart way? Does it intelligently connect the many city systems to allow dynamic adaptation, true optimisation and deep user centricity – all for the benefit of its residents?

American urban strategist Boyd Cohen makes a call for cities to evolve into what he terms ‘Smart City 2.0’. An evolutionary step up from the tech drivers behind Songdo and its contemporaries, 2.0 sees more thought put into the intelligence installed in cities to ensure the technology solves real-world issues that matter to residents. Beyond this – their intelligent systems are connected and the information is utilised and processed so that the city becomes a highly functional, self-learning and self-modulating organism capable of responsive behaviour.

Cohen writes about Rio de Janeiro, where the mayor invited IBM to install a highly effective mudslide early detection system in the favelas. A truly smart city would be one which moves beyond simply noting that a mud slide occurred, to collecting data about the causes, managing those, directing emergency services when an event occurs and notifying residents of alternative emergency housing.

Tomorrow’s cities

If we are to ensure tomorrow’s cities move beyond functioning as basic forms of life, we must ask some deep questions about what it might take to ensure they evolve in a meaningful way. The evolution must solve relevant problems and make the liveability of residents its central purpose. As engineers, architects and planners, seeing our cities as living beings in which intelligence is connected to relevant functionality is key. Every intelligent organism requires built-in capacity to ‘think’ and it’s time our cities achieved the same. Now that really is smart!

This post was originally published on the Just Imagine blog.

Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.