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Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display?
The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy'
Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights? The smart city concept arguably dates back at least as far as the invention of automated traffic lights, which were first deployed in in Houston, Texas. Leo Hollis, author of Cities Are Good For You , says the one unarguably positive achievement of smart city-style thinking in modern times is the train indicator boards on the London Underground. But in the last decade, thanks to the rise of ubiquitous internet connectivity and the miniaturisation of electronics in such now-common devices as RFID tags, the concept seems to have crystallised into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot — a vision that originated, according to Adam Greenfield at LSE Cities , with giant technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Software AG, all of whom hoped to profit from big municipal contracts.
Whole new cities, such as Songdo in South Korea, have already been constructed according to this template.
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So what challenges face technologists hoping to weave cutting-edge networks and gadgets into centuries-old streets and deeply ingrained social habits and patterns of movement? Not one non-Apple-branded laptop could be spotted among the audience, and at least one attendee was seen confidently sporting the telltale fat cyan arm of Google Glass on his head. Speakers enthused about the transport app Citymapper, and how the city of Zurich is both futuristic and remarkably civilised.
Strikingly, though, many of the speakers took care to denigrate the idea of the smart city itself, as though it was a once-fashionable buzzphrase that had outlived its usefulness. This was done most entertainingly by Usman Haque , of the urban consultancy Umbrellium. The corporate smart-city rhetoric, he pointed out, was all about efficiency, optimisation, predictability, convenience and security.
Of course, these speakers who rejected the corporate, top-down idea of the smart city were themselves demonstrating their own technological initiatives to make the city, well, smarter.
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It could be used in the morning by a cycle commuter: glancing at a personalised dashboard of local data, she could check local pollution levels and traffic, and whether there are bikes in the nearby cycle-hire rack. Manchester has recognised that. But of course, the things that enable that approach — a vast network of sensors amounting to millions of electronic ears, eyes and noses — also potentially enable the future city to be a vast arena of perfect and permanent surveillance by whomever has access to the data feeds.
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One only has to look at the hi-tech nerve centre that IBM built for Rio de Janeiro to see this Nineteen Eighty-Four-style vision already alarmingly realised. It is festooned with screens like a Nasa Mission Control for the city.
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The one thing that is certain about software is that it crashes. We can be sure that accidents will happen — driverless cars will crash; bugs will take down whole transport subsystems or the electricity grid; drones could hit passenger aircraft.
How smart will the architects of the smart city look then? A less intrusive way to make a city smarter might be to give those who govern it a way to try out their decisions in virtual reality before inflicting them on live humans. This is the idea behind city-simulation company Simudyne , whose projects include detailed computerised models for planning earthquake response or hospital evacuation.
And indeed Simudyne now draws a lot of its talent from the world of videogames. So five or six years ago we developed a new system which allows you to make visualisations — pretty pictures. They can be used for art installations and entertainment: for example, mapping underground ancient Rome for the BBC. Will there one day be convergence between this kind of thing and the elaborately realistic modelled cities that are built for commercial videogames? What if you could travel through a visually convincing city simulation wearing the VR headset, Oculus Rift?
European innovation partnership on smart cities and communities
European innovation partnership on smart cities and communities Related policies Latest Related events Related links. What are smart cities? Latest Smart city matchmaking in Barcelona. News 12 November News 21 March News 21 February Smart finance for smart buildings: investing in energy efficiency in buildings. News 7 February Related events European Mobility Week Sep European Mobility Week European Mobility Week Sep EU seminar: Smart and sustainable cities, lessons learnt and opportunities within H 22 Sep EU seminar: Smart and sustainable cities, lessons learnt and opportunities within H Padova, Italy.
More events. Related links Calls for funding. Projects and lessons learned.