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We have been sold a tech-utopia called a Smart City. An urban infrastructure full of sensors, creating masses of data, or “big data”, sent to sophisticated systems, which crunch numbers and control all sorts of applications and information provisions.

Hired by national and municipal governments, tech giants such as IBM, Cisco, and Siemens, have developed infrastructure now being applied in cities around the world, shaping the urban society of the future. However, several leading experts are now suggesting we turn this top-down system on its head.

Smart City

Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future and author of “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest of a New Utopia”, talks about how smart cities will develop using the analogy of a mainframe vs. the web. He writes:

“These model smart cities are like mainframes where everything’s going to a central place. There’s one suite of software that dictates how everything works and can be very carefully engineered. But our ‘smart’ cities are going to look much more like the Web, where there’s going to be a lot of things deployed by individual decision, talking to each other through open standards in very ad hoc, loosely knit ways”.

It could be called a more natural form of urban planning. When cities plan growth, they start with an open grid, and citizens customise the different pieces that they’ve chosen to tackle. The result is a complex and vibrant system instead of a controlled, hierarchical one, says Townsend.

The term “smart city” does not necessarily refer to the centrally controlled system being put forward by many tech companies and municipal governments. Smart city can refer to almost any modern technology driven urban mechanism, be that traffic sensors feeding into a futuristic traffic control centre like we have seen in Rio de Janeiro, or citizen developed apps such as Bey2ollak, a traffic app inspired by the chaotic streets of Cairo in Egypt.

Born out of a need for drivers to pick their route and a lack of official information in the congested city, Bey2ollak (meaning “I’m telling you”, in Egyptian Arabic) is an app in which drivers manually update the traffic status of the roads around them with qualitative terms like 7alawa (sweet), Mashy (walking) or Mafeesh Amal (no hope). The unbridled chaos of Cairo’s streets is far beyond the capabilities of traffic features on Google Maps. It required something different, something “from the people, for the people”.

This incremental, ad-hoc style of smart city development is what Townsend refers to in his mainframe vs. web analogy. And just as was the case with the Internet, the initial idea was a centralised information transfer system, but it could only have achieved the levels of penetration we now see by re-developing itself as a platform.

The benefits of drawing on the diverse and collective creativity of our tech-savvy society are vast, diverse and proven, albeit a little messy, like society itself.

That’s not to say that networks of sensors are not required, nor that Big Data number crunching is not a vital element, but that the smart city as a platform provides the hardware through which people create applications. In turn the ambitions of potential applications shape the continued development of the platform. The same could be said of the current culture of apps on a smartphone platform vs. phones that only carry the manufacturers applications.

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The dilemma is that the good ideas come from the grassroots, but they also have trouble getting to a finished, polished version that a city can use and they have a hard time cross-fertilizing between cities. While the tech-giants will not be the source of innovation, the IBMs and Ciscos of the world do have a role to play is taking those citizen lead innovations that bubble up and scaling them, making them secure, reliable, and reconfigurable so that you can actually spread them city to city very quickly.

The current vision and the solutions that the big guys are offering aren’t necessarily that relevant to the problems that cities face. There are people on the ground who have a much keener sense of what the problems are. Also it’s so much more compelling to the average city dweller because it’s about transforming their experience of the city into something much more exciting, functional and sociable, and it does really speak to our needs as human beings.

“What I like about that is that kind of architecture is actually what a good urbanist would tell you builds a good city. You build an open grid, you allow people to customise the pieces of it that they have jurisdiction over, and you get this fine-grained, resilient, vibrant kind of system with a lot of complexity, as opposed to a very controlled, hierarchical system that’s actually fairly brittle when it comes under stress” explains Townsend.

In many ways this change is already happening, forcing its way into the smart city ecosystem, and I don’t see any significant resistance to this evolution. All stakeholders will see that the money lies in the decentralised, user inspired, smart cities as a platform. Just as it did, and does, with smartphones and the web.