Where R U? 'Smart Cities' Addresses Our Desire to Connect

Is the smart city already here? Or is it an impossibility, given how messy humans are? What does the ideal smart city look like?

Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 384 pages
Author: Anthony M. Townsend
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-10

Highspeed, always-on Internet access, connecting every inhabitant to larger communities of thinkers, doers, and dreamers. Smart appliances, anticipating our needs and desires, linking together to make our homes and workplaces operate more efficiently, without us even noticing. A "balanced network of things connected by information flows" smoothly running behind the scenes, pinging our smartphones when we’re almost out of milk, prepping our coffee and toast at just the right moment, running the loaded laundry machine when the electricity rates are at their low point for the day, and discreetly alerting us when it’s time to leave for an important meeting given current traffic conditions. No more excuses for tardiness or arriving at work in a decaffeinated state.

Is the smart city already here? Or is it an impossibility, given how messy human existence really is? What does the ideal smart city look like? Are they planned, or organically grown from the ground up? Anthony M. Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia dives headlong into these questions.

With seven billion people populating the planet, and half of us living in cities, the pace of urbanization is speeding up. The nature of the grid of connectivity is changing just as fast as people are moving into cities. Since 2007, when the first iPhone was launched, mobile data traffic worldwide has doubled every year. It’s not a question of laying down the right kind of power lines anymore. We must now consider the coming growth in these wireless networks, and anticipate the future capacity that will be required to quench our thirst for constant connectivity.

The devices in our pockets, on our wrists, and even on our faces, allow for untethered, continuous data streams and links to the circles we move within. The most common text message to go from one gadget to the next is apparently, “where r u?”. We still want to connect with and know each other, no matter how the rest of our daily functioning changes with emerging technologies.

What kind of shell, what kind of container, can support the direction many of us, from first world to third world, are taking with our advancing technologies? Townsend describes smart cities as "places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems." This can take different forms, with different solutions being appropriate to unique combinations of social norms and contexts from one city to the next.

Modern cities are grappling with vast amounts of data collected about the routine workings of the city and its inhabitants. Vast hoards of information prompt excitement, and yet could be crippling if not analyzed and used productively. Open data initiatives where governments have figured out how to release data sets publicly hold lots of potential for letting entrepreneurs and programmers figure out and harness the patterns that make local communities thrive.

In an interview on CBC This Morning, Townsend defined a smart city as “a community that is using new digital technologies to address these timeless problems like fighting crime, reducing traffic, or disposing of waste”, and he went on to explain that New York City is a great example of this type of organized data deployment. By collecting routine data generated by the city’s existing systems, that information can be used to identify “flash points” in everyday processes that can be smoothed out to make life flow more conveniently.

Some urban planners tasked with raising entirely new cities to accommodate incoming migrating populations are making efforts to build in systems to make life function more smoothly before anyone has even moved in. Townsend describes the city of Songdo in South Korea, where RFID technology (Radio-frequency identification) has been incorporated to help track the flow of inhabitants daily movements. It remains to be seen if RFID has the staying power to keep Songdo on the map.

Townsend surveys his subjects over both time and space, as he tracks back to the beginnings of technologies and data management that supported early smart city efforts from North America to east Asia. He quotes the 1991 prescient text Mirror Worlds as an early indicator for the direction technology was taking society: "sensing, networking, computation, and visualization are converging in our world today".

One can identify successes and failures across the globe. A favourite example Townsend describes is Barcelona, an early smart city with infrastructure for telegraph technology built in by a savvy planner. Townsend really hits his stride near the middle of Smart Cities when he begins describing some of the ways things haven’t gone as intended, for all the foresight of urban planners.

Tech-savvy geeks are often early pioneers, setting up free and open networks with lofty goals of enabling access for all, succeeding in some areas and hitting obstacles in others, but at least understanding the technology and the way people are using it in a very hands-on sense. Townsend notes that "The technology giants building smart cities are mostly paying attention to technology, not people, mostly ignoring the creative process of harnessing technology at the grass roots." Both in his speaking on the topic and in Smart Cities, Townsend often returns to the concept that the most effective smart cities will take into consideration the abilities and interests of their inhabitants.

Smart Cities is full of examples of potential for technologically connected cities of the future, and Townsend is very knowledgeable in this area. He speaks widely and often on the topic, so check online and his site for his lectures and presentations on the topic. Townsend has established himself as a leading thinker in this area, and Smart Cities shows a wealth of researched knowledge that will only continue to expand as municipal governments continue to experiment with what changes and additions to existing infrastructure have staying power and convey some benefit to the growing number of people who choose an urban lifestyle.


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