Smart Thinking for Smarter Cities

What are smart cities? It is most likely a concept that carries different meanings to different people, despite all fitting into a larger umbrella with a mostly positive note. Anthony M. Townsend attempts to describe the term ‘smart cities’ as “places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic and environmental problems” (p.15).

Different places will have different issues, priorities, advantages and shortcomings. For example, while bike-sharing took off almost globally in just a few years after its 2007 debut in Paris, it quickly became a problem in Rome. In some neighbourhood, bicycles started ‘disappearing’, never returning to any station, being effectively stolen; in other areas, they remained completely untouched, as almost all Romans own a car or a moped. A combination of factors turned this supposedly ecological transformation of the city into a massive failure. There has recently been an attempt at setting up a car sharing programme, which would fit more into the patterns of Roman life, but still does not address probably one of the biggest issues of traffic in Rome – parking.

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So one size most definitely does not fit all, and we cannot go about making our cities smarter via an industrial cookie-cutter formula.

In the preface of his book Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia (2013), Anthony M. Townsend, when discussing the everyday use of the smartphone, the author writes “Every day, all across the globe, people are solving local problems using this increasingly cheap consumer technology.” (p.xiv). With smartphones now being out of big-budget monopoly and more affordable options being made available, having a lower income does not necessarily mean having less access to things such as apps. Almost everyone now can check their bank accounts, check-in on Foursquare and send text and voice messages for zero cost beyond their monthly mobile data plan – real time and on the go.

A great example of how apps can not only help make cities smarter but also be a ‘call to action’ to its inhabitants is “Geo Estrela”. Designed by the parish council of Estrela, one of Lisbon’s most beautiful historical neighbourhoods, it allows people who live in the area to instantly report any problems they notice in the area, sending, along with a description and the type of problem, it’s exact location via GPS. The application can be accessed on a computer as well but only by inhabitants of the area, who are given a username and a password, to ensure efficiency of the service. Reports range from excess rubbish on the streets to holes in pavements or roads, and citizens have gone on record to state that once a problem is reported through the app, depending in its scale, it is usually fixed within hours or just a couple of days.

Although it is limited to a neighbourhood, it is certainly a way to make the council aware of issues as they occur, keeping the area safe and clean, and in TV interviews regarding the app, people have even commented on how caring for the state of their neighbourhood has even helped them learn how to use their smartphones better.

In order to properly analyse the effects and consequences of this app on both the physical space of the neighbourhood and people’s use of media in that location, and possibly devise smarter solutions for smarter cities, we would need the framework that Tarantino and Tosoni ask us to conceive – somewhere between the study of urban spaces and the study of media, where none of the two takes a central role.

 

Bibliography

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

Tarantino, M. & Tosoni, S., 2013. Introduction: Beyond the centrality of media and the centrality of space. First Monday, 18(11). Available at: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4953

Migliaccio, A., June 11th 2014. Rome Shows the World How Not to Run Bike-Sharing Program[online] Available at: <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-06-11/in-eternal-city-bicycle-thieves-doom-sharing-ambitions>

Martin, C., February 2nd 2016. Best budget smartphones 2016: What’s the best budget phone? [online] Available at: <http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/test-centre/mobile-phone/20-best-budget-smartphones-2016-uk-summary-3473395/>

November 28th 2014. Freguesia lisboeta lança ‘app’ para reportar ocorrências [online] Available at: < http://boasnoticias.pt/noticias_Freguesia-lisboeta-lan%C3%A7a-app-para-reportar-ocorr%C3%AAncias_21776.html?page=0>

 

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