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Smart Cities

Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia

Anthony Townsend

(New Scientist)

THERE are currently two equally powerful, but ideologically opposed, visions of what a smart city is and what it should be. In the blue corner is the paternalistic approach, in which a network of sensors, transport arteries, motion-sensitive street lighting and smart grids feed into a central operating centre. There, a team of civil servants and a mayoral Wizard of Oz respond to these electronic indicators and usher citizens accordingly.

In the red corner, is the city networked from the bottom up. Here, the smart technology is not billion-dollar investments made by city authorities, but the smartphones we carry and our internet-connected homes. The rise of apps and social networks allows us to navigate, edit and influence the cities we live in, telling authorities rather than waiting to be told.

Anthony M. Townsend's Smart Cities sits squarely in the red corner. A self-styled civic hacker turned adviser to government and industry, Townsend's interest in smart cities is more than merely technological: he offers an entertaining history of urban planning's visionaries and villains, the technological breakthroughs and the spectacular failures that brought us to this crossroads.

Today's rapid urbanisation means that more than half of the world's population now lives in cities, a figure expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050. But it was not inevitable. The movement in the early 20th century was away from cities to suburbs and "garden city" idylls, nostalgic for a rural past. Even as late as the mid-1990s, technology pundit George Gilder wrote cities off as "leftover baggage from the industrial era", recalls Townsend.

The internet was supposed to let us live and work anywhere. Instead, there is a renaissance in city living: the urban world's density and diversity are proving more environmentally sustainable and boosting well-being. In fact, the movement of humans into cities will end up being the story of the 21st century.

Townsend describes the smart infrastructure that municipal authorities are investing in as the "digital upgrade to our built legacy". But his greatest hope is for personalised tech, with smartphone apps, community-owned broadband ("one of the best investments a smart city can make"), sensors and cheap microcontrollers all put to ingenious use, from monitoring sewage overflow to pot plants that tweet when they need watering. There's even an app that residents of Tel Aviv, Israel, can download to alert them about imminent rocket attacks.

These herald the possibility of an open-sourced city, one that Townsend compares to the birth of the internet. The fact that to connect to the internet we use the open, evolving protocol known as TCP/IP rather than the rigid, government and industry-backed X.25 version, has been to everyone's benefit. As Townsend enthuses: "The promise is that we'll build the hardware of smart cities just like we built the web, by empowered users one little piece at a time."

The greatest scorn

Not that Townsend is blinkered to possible dystopia. He warns of poor communities at the mercy of those who measure and control them, of old power grids collapsing under the demand, of Orwellian "telescreens" realised in the two-way Cisco video screens of apartments in the South Korean tech city of Songdo – for which he reserves the greatest scorn. This is the embodiment of the blue corner: a highly engineered IT experiment, many steps removed from how people actually live and work.

Rio de Janeiro's central operations centre comes in for criticism, too, its hundreds of camera feeds, giant screens and live transport map creating a "remote-control city", an arms-length approach to urban management. He accuses the Brazilian city of treating its poor as "a problem to be measured and managed with IBM software, so the Olympic games could go off without a glitch". Harsh words, perhaps too harsh for a city that has transformed its image and economy in recent years.

If we leave government and IT giants to their own devices, we end up with a world of Songdos, warns Townsend: wonderfully engineered, technologically advanced ghettos. The alternative – open-sourced data, planners working with civil society, hackers with poor communities, smart sensors running alongside smartphones – could improve city life. For him, "somewhere in the middle is the more realistic future".

While Townsend thinks that urban design is as much an art as a science, Michael Batty, an architect-planner at University College London, believes that the time has come for the latter.

The New Science of Cities is a treatise, as well as a set of tools and models, to better understand cities and explore possible futures. Building on his prolific body of work, which began at the University of Manchester in 1966, Batty has long argued for such a science. This is his attempt to present that science in its fullest form yet.

For too long, he argues, "we have continued to think of cities as spaces and places, but we have never attempted to see the city as a set of networks from which locations naturally emerge".

Unlike Townsend's popular-science-cum-history book, Batty's offering is really a textbook, one for students, city planners and fellow academics. But like Townsend, his emphasis and analysis is firmly on "smartness" – and what that will mean for the future.

His chapters can be read independently to better understand areas such as complexity theory or hierarchical design. And he provides an arsenal of tools to explore the space-time dynamics of scaling systems, and offers models to help grapple with urban simulation techniques. "Our models suggest ways in which actual decision processes might be improved, embodying norms that pertain to the design of future cities," he explains.

Overall, The New Science of Cities is an ambitious and laudable undertaking, one that Batty admits cannot be comprehensive, but which, even so, may well be seen as a milestone. Those wanting an "integrated science that is nicely packaged and available to apply immediately", Batty writes, "will be disappointed. No such package exists, and it probably never will. Like physics, it might seem as though the field should aspire to an integrated theory... but as in physics too, this is a mirage."

Batty, like Townsend, prefers a bottom-up approach to civic planning and champions the uniqueness of cities rather than wishing them uniform. They have some of the same heroes too, most notably the Scottish urban theorist Patrick Geddes and American-Canadian city visionary Jane Jacobs.

And Batty's sentiment appears to unite these very different books: "There are almost as many approaches to understanding cities as there are commentators trying to make sense of this complexity."

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