How do you fancy living in a city where you can interact? A city that acts more like a living organism, that can respond to your needs. Around the world, such cities are already being built, from Masdar in Abu Dhabi to Songdo in South Korea. Now the chaotic city near you may be in line for a makeover.
In future, everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space, and even the rubbish bins will be smart.
But how do we get to this smarter future? And is it a future we even want?
Technology firms such as IBM, Siemens, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco are busy selling their software to solve a range of city problems, from water leaks to air pollution to traffic congestion. In Singapore, Stockholm and California, IBM is gathering traffic data and running it via algorithms to predict where a traffic jam will occur an hour before it has happened. Meanwhile in Rio (Brazil), it has built a Nasa-style control room where banks of screens suck up data from sensors and cameras located around the city.
In total IBM has some 2,500 smarter cities projects around the world and has even trademarked the term “smarter cities”.
“Some people want to fine tune a city like you do a race car but they are leaving citizens out of the process,” says Anthony Townsend, director of the Institute of the Future and author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.
IBM argues that it does get citizens involved in its smart city projects. In Dublin it has worked with the city council to open up the vast amounts of data it has, which has led to clever little apps such as ParkYa, which uses traffic data to find people the best parking space in the city.
And in the US city of Dubuque, Iowa, where it is developing smart water metres, it has offered the data to citizens via a community portal, so that individuals can see their water usage and even compare it with that of their neighbours. But there is a sense that for the firm, cities are a problem just waiting to be solved.
“We need to build cities that adapt to the needs of their citizens but previously it was not possible because there was not enough information,” says Dr Lisa Amini, director of IBM Research. She makes the comparison between the “assets” of cities, such as streetlights, traffic, water pipes and those of large corporations, for which IBM’s systems were originally designed.
China is busy building dozens of new cities and is starting to adopt huge control rooms like the one IBM has created in Rio. It worries Townsend. “The control room in Rio was created by a progressive mayor but what if the bad guys get in? Are we creating capabilities that can be misused?” he asks.
There is another chapter in the smart city story — and this one is being written by citizens, who are using apps, DIY sensors, smartphones and the web to solve the city problems that matter to them.
Don’t Flush Me is a neat little DIY sensor and app, which is single-handedly helping to solve one of New York’s biggest water issues. Every time there is heavy rain in the city, raw sewage is pumped into the harbour, at a rate of 27 billion gallons each year.
Meanwhile Egg, a community-led sensor network, is alerting people to an often hidden problem in our cities. Researchers estimate that two million people die each year as a result of air pollution and as cities get more overcrowded, the problem is likely to get worse.
Getting citizens involved in the process of improving cities is crucial, thinks Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London. He and his team have created a city dashboard as part of plans to make London smarter. Like Rio’s control room, the dashboard collates data such as pollution, weather and river levels.
But it also looks at some things that Rio doesn’t such as what is trending on Twitter and how happy the city is. A version of the dashboard is hooked up on a wall of iPads in the office of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
But importantly, there is also a version available on the web. “The public has the same information as the policy-makers and that has the potential to be incredibly powerful,” he says. There is little doubt that cities have to get smarter. By 2050, it is estimated that 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, putting pressure on the transport network, the emergency services and the utilities that are already stretched to capacity.
The reality is that most smart city projects are currently pretty small scale — creating tech hubs or green areas of the city, experimenting with smart electricity grids or introducing electric buses or bike-sharing schemes.
As Dr Hudson-Smith puts it; “there is a lot of buzz around smart cities but there is no technology out there that is actually changing people’s lives.” But he also thinks we are at a tipping point and in five years’ time he predicts “things will be incredibly smart”.
At that point, the data infrastructure of our cities is going to become as important as the train and roads are now. Whether such data is controlled by big business or citizens is not yet clear, but it is worth remembering what cities were originally designed for, says Dan Hill, chief executive of research firm Fabrica. “We don’t make cities to be efficient, we make cities for culture, commerce, community - all of which are very inefficient,” he says.