Is the future of cities smart? - RSA

Is the future of cities smart?

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In the future, cities will account for 80% of wealth creation, 60% of energy consumption, and almost 90% of global population growth, according to research on city science from MIT. Russel Cooke argues that those cities that understand the value of ‘big data’ within their urbanisation strategies will be better positioned for future improvements.

While the term ‘smart city’ may be somewhat ambiguous, the characteristics generally include: the utilisation of networked infrastructure that improves efficiency and enables better urban development; a strategy for increasing competitiveness and local prosperity; and a defined approach to social sustainability. Smart cities are defined by efficiency; and by being more efficient, cities with robust infrastructures are better able to maintain a high quality of life and sustain economic development.

All of these characteristics should include instituting data collection programs to spur development and innovation; this can help cities gather intelligence that helps them to support an innovative environment and solve city-wide problems.

In the future these cities will have vast networks of interconnected systems and networks and will be able to interact with their citizens and respond to their needs. Everything from power grids, to sewers, to roads and beyond will be connected. The data collected from these systems will be used to solve city problems and make smarter decisions. Ideally, smart cities will evolve to be able to adapt; specifically to be able to adapt rapidly to meet the changing needs of citizens. Some smart cities examine both data collected by their sensors and other external data to gather insights about the city; for example, measuring sentiment on social media to learn how happy the city is. Digital dashboards can be created to allow city officials, or even private citizens, to monitor the data and city trends.

As time progresses and these systems and technologies become more advanced, data infrastructures will become as important as more traditional city infrastructures, such as public transportation and roads.

Chicago is the latest city to implement these kinds of approaches. ‘The windy city’ aims to become a smart city and the project driving this – dubbed the Array of Things – could do much to move the city forward.

Chicago will be collecting big data with a permanent infrastructure installed in lampposts across the city. Data-collecting sensors will be housed in decorative metal sheaths and are designed to appear to be pieces of sculpture. They will collect a variety of city data, including environment information such as wind, light, sound volume, temperature, humidity and cell phone signals. Tracking cell phone data traffic will allow for population counts in specific areas. The sensors will only track cell phone signals, not individual devices or people, according to the project’s planners. The first 30 sensors are being installed this Autumn, with the ultimate goal being to have 500 sensors in total installed across the city over the next two or three years.

The data the city collects can be used in practical ways, such as monitoring collected temperature data and using it to determine which city streets need to be salted during winter storms. The data will also be open source, meaning that the public will be able to have access to and use the data. Potentially, this means that anyone can use the data to develop new solutions and applications that could have a positive impact on Chicago. The hope behind the project is that this approach will make Chicago a more efficient, safer and cleaner place to live.

The project comes on the heels of a 2012 executive order dealing with open data from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel but using big data in this way is not a new idea. The 2012 executive order stated that every city agency should ensure that all data is updated regularly, is accurate and reliable, and be made available to the public. The order also called for departments across the city to hire data coordinators.

Some people may be concerned with what they feel is ‘Big Brother’ activity and data collection issues related to personal privacy. If people can potentially do good things with open source data, can they also do harm? In response to questions such as these, the project planners in Chicago put forth a set of security and privacy guidelines that will be finalised before the sensors are installed. The guidelines prohibit the collection of identifying or personal information and the project team reports that regular reviews of scientific concerns, privacy, and security will be performed by independent industry experts from multiple sectors, including academia, government and industry.

At their core, cities are places to live and work and this will continue to be the case. But the nature of cities is changing as technology becomes ubiquitous; older systems are becoming obsolete and inefficient. Data collection will form the basis of the cities of tomorrow.

Russel Cooke is a Customer Relationship Management specialist and writer who recently moved to Los Angeles, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @RusselCooke2.

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  • The smartest essay I have read on this issue is this:

    We need to think about cities as being more than something that can be controlled or tweaked using a bunch of knobs. I won't rehash that article, but it's a must read for anyone think about cities, culture and technology.

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