What is a Smart City?

Many claims are being made for how technology will determine the future of the city – the technologically driven smart city – that in the words of Sassen (2003) ‘talks back’.

Promises range from the achievable: facilitating the flow of traffic and greater efficiency in energy consumption to the more extreme; allowing the survival of our species. There is also the somewhat controversial claim, given our reluctance to move away from the consumer society, that thanks to technology, climate change and limited resources do not mean having to cut back (Townsend, 2013, ppxii-xiii).

And while Townsend talks about grassroots movements with activists and citizens leading the way, it is still the large corporations that hold sway. New technologies have to work with existing infrastructures and cities designed for quite different times. Comparisons are made to the construction of roads in the US in the twentieth century, but further comparisons could be made a century before that with railway construction in the UK (Odlyzko, 2010).

The idea of city’s talking back is not a new one; the work of Dr John Snow to trace the source of a cholera outbreak in London relied on the gathering, processing and interpretation of information (Johnson, 2008) gleaned from the city. Technology allows us to speed up this process, gives us new tools to solve existing problems, opens these tools to a wider audience and can help us react to the results at far greater speed – often in real-time.

Street map showing deaths from in Soho in 1853

Street map showing deaths from in Soho in 1853

At the Networked Cities event in 2012, Roland Busch, gave the examples of how his company, Siemens, is working with city mayors, using technology to solve existing problems – in Berlin by creating energy efficient buildings and in London though a ten-year upgrade to the transport system.

He explained how they work to solve specific problems, but that a truly ‘smart city’ needs integration. Local councils should stop thinking in silos – transport, energy, education – but instead consider these as a whole, integrating services, and exploring, for example how transport can be connected with energy efficiency using ICT.

Johnson, S (2008). The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks. Penguin.

Odlyzko, A (2010). Collective Hallucinations and Inefficient Markets: The British Railway Mania of the 1840s. http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/hallucinations.pdf [accessed 14 February 2016].

Sassen, S (2003). Urbanising Technology, Urban Age Electric City. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyS1H_Zs4po [accessed 11 February 2016].

Snow, J (1855). On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. John Churchill.

Townsend, A (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, ppxii-xiii. WW Norton & Company.

Urban Age Electric City, Event London (2012). Busch, R. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw2YE9aslS4&list=PLUYdXYRUDvctkkLRKX22R-0ihtst12V3K [accessed 11 February 2016].

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