Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Four thoughts on smart cities

I attended a really interesting panel discussion on smart cities at FutureFest. Here’s some takeaways:

One. Big Business’ view of smart cities is not a popular one

Big company’s (IBM and Cisco were name checked) attempts to create momentum around smart cities were lampooned by the experts. Someone described their ideas as attempts to create “panopticans”, designed to a central plan where ordered streets and facilities are monitored by all seeing computers. This is scary, probably impractical, but most importantly pretty boring. In my view the delights of cities are in the discovery of new nooks and crannies, the spontaneous sprouting of new businesses and sub-cultures as different groups mix. Central planning creates boring cities, like Dubai or Doha where culture has to be manufactured. I remember being told a story about an attempt to build a “soho” area in Dubai… where the rents would be much higher than surrounding areas because of the unique environment. Missing the point, I think…

There are parallels here to the Enlightenment, in which the intelligentsia sought perfect information in order to provide answers to the mysteries of life and the problems of society. This approach led to the agglomeration of hack writers on Grub Street in London, where contrary and even anarchic viewpoints were developed and fermented. Arguably the resultant disruption to the opinions of the day was just as important as those of Voltaire and Newton. They contributed to the French Revolution, for example. So just as there is elegance in perfect information, innovation readily results from imperfection as assumptions have to be made that lead to invention and change. 

Two. Crowds of sensors and analysts is a more likely route to diagnosing cities

The alternative view to the above is the idea of using digital to enable sensors of many different types and with no central ownership to be brought together for mutual - but not pre-meditated – gain. Platforms where measurements on things like air quality, temperature and pollen counts can be uploaded already exist. Discrepancies caused by the different types of techniques and sensors used can then be ironed out by conversations around the data – something digital is awesome at. The use of Pachube during the Fukashima crisis in 2011 illustrates this. Data from 2,000 hobbyists with radiation sensors was aggregated to create a real time map of radiation in Japan. The Japanese authorities could only come up with daily readings.

This kind of data sharing reminded me of the use of Reddit as a sleuthing tool during the Boston bombings. Admittedly in this case the crowd of wannabe detectives got totally the wrong answer, but this was a very complex analysis. Normalising all sorts of sensor data and then making use of it is much simpler and definitely something a crowd of interested hobbyists would get a kick out of!

Three. Smart data may be personal, not a Big Bang control system

Another issue with the panoptican smart city is that there’s a temptation to effect change at a massive scale. The panel suggested another option where people measure their own environment and then experiment with changes that improve their local zone. For example, with air quality, does having peace lilies in the kitchen improve the air quality there?  Gameification can be used to scale this up to a larger level – perhaps up to multiple dwelling units. In truth though, most people won’t be interested experimentalists. Someone who has hay fever may choose to measure pollen (although I expect the proportions will be small), but they probably won’t measure everything and certainly won’t share it. Even so, statistics mean that even a tiny proportion of the millions living in a major city measure and share, the data will exist and the tips for improving things will propagate.

An observation one panellist made was that the system of innovation at this level could be described simply as measurement to intuition to capacity to act. I liked this and will be claiming it as my own!

Four. More work needs to be done on urban food production

The only disappointing part of the panel was CJ Lim reading out the abstract of a paper on urban food production. Basically the idea was to leave aside areas of green space within cities. Good idea, but there was no reference to using much more hi-tech solutions like hydroponic micro farms to make use of even smaller spaces within the urban environment. More work needs to be done on this areas in my view – perhaps even as far as subsidies for this kind of technology. Although arguably introducing scarcity into the food supply in the west would reduce the massive amount of wastage in the system. It’d probably improve our diets too. 

Getting all green-communist now, so I’ll stop! This is an interesting topic though, so I’m going to look out for more information on it.

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