From Smart City to Smart Society

By Sally Eaves - Apr 14, 2020
From Smart City to Smart Society

In 1950, 746 Million people lived in cities but just one hundred years later in 2050, this is anticipated to surpass 6 Billion – some 66% of the world’s population. In this increasingly urban, data-driven and hybrid world that integrates the physical and the virtual, the concept of ‘smartness’ comes to the fore. The vision of a ‘smart city’ has been in existence for many years but it is only recently that advances in technology have enabled tangible progress towards its real-world actualization. I believe this is also critical to the successful implementation of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGS). So, what does a smart city mean to you?

The concept may conjure up visions of sensor rich, fully automated buildings, intuitive parking and traffic management systems, and utilities that provide precision like efficiency in their deployment. All things that make our everyday that every bit easier to navigate and to optimise, whilst reducing frictions such as ageing or legacy IT. Our needs are met by systems that anticipate what we may wish to buy, monitor our health and wellbeing, and preventively prescribe maintenance treatments, as well as cater to our insatiable demand to be informed and entertained!

And as we commence 2020, we are already seeing transformations that are bringing real-world actualization to smart city anticipation. Mobility is a key example, with today’s passenger increasingly expecting on-demand and intermodal transit options that are both reliable and affordable. As the decade progresses, we can realistically envisage autonomous taxis and minibuses covering ‘the last mile’ between our homes and public transport hubs; bringing together convenience with a reduction in congestion.

Similarly, today’s driver expects ever more sensory communication from their vehicle and its surrounding infrastructure as exemplified by Connected Vehicle projects that enable this authentic human-tech partnership, rather than replacement. This is an era of interconnected and digitalized mobility, which is evolving our everyday travel behaviors. The future of urban mobility will become increasingly autonomous, connected, electric and shared.

Smart Cities and AI. Image by Dinis Guarda

These developments can perhaps be considered as a delivery of the promise of integrating the Internet of Things, 5G, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Storage, Big Data Analytics, Blockchain, Robotics, Autonomous Vehicles, Drones, Voice Activation and Biometric Recognition. Is this a utopian city vision that offers people a dreamlike future existence? Or, do we need to focus more on aligning the technological promise with the very human nature that lies behind the beating heart of our cities. Surely, it is really all about people and our collective Quality of Life:

“The city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” (Plato)

This refocuses attention to the purpose behind the technology and the spaces, communities and overarching society that makes up our cities and with this, issues of access, inclusion and diversity. Unintentionally, along with the new opportunities, technological advancements and increased urban living have also brought with them a range of new challenges. These include overcrowding, environmental degradation and pollution, resource depletion and often underpinning this, a lack of infrastructure readiness. As just one example, urbanization has seen the demand for power continue to exceed supply in developing countries, with a growth rate of some 5-7% per year. And across the world, our appetite for data is leading to ever increasing demands on data center capacity and power consumption.

Smart City Development: Data,  Privacy and Social Divides

Another impact has been unequal access to the benefits of smart city development and higher social divides. How accessible are smart solutions to those living in poorer areas or without digital literacy? One example is the Virtual University of Senegal in Dakar, the country's first public virtual university, which uses ICT to address inequalities in access to higher education.

As cities increase their capability to use and target data, we also see issues around trust and transparency, alongside privacy, and ownership. In an age where everybody’s activity is ‘sensed’ there remains questions and concerns about what exactly is happening with that data? Building trust is a global imperative across sectors and for Smart Cities, Civic Tech is often leading the way with real-world innovation that seeks to address social issues through collaborative creation in the community, with city residents themselves having a key voice.

Further, with so much focus on Big Data, AI and Machine Learning in relation to Smart Cities, we must also keep in mind that data is not a new thing. Rather this ‘new’ data augments decision-making with old data – it is a complementary not a replacement either/or relationship. And similarly, the useful of this data comes down to being able to filter the noise to focus on the nuanced insights that matter and measure progress on specific outcomes. This is particularly important to transparently showing impact in areas such as Sustainability and sharing best practice so we can scale the changes we so urgently need to achieve the SDG’s – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

So, as I envisage the next iteration of ‘smartness’, I believe this means focusing on enhancing equality of digital, economic and educational opportunities, alongside mobility and sustainability. Smart is also about enabling informed choice, for example the cheapest, fastest or most eco-friendly solution. Innovation, collaboration and collective knowledge sharing to combine both human and artificial intelligence is a prerequisite to re-imagine the future. This calls for a change in orientation and attitude, a shift from Smart City to Smart Society supported by Smart technologies – this is where we can move from sensors to skills and to sense making.

How can ‘smart’ benefit everyone? This is a key question we will be addressing in this book and as part of Cities ABC. The time is now to reduce the gaps between ambition, local realities and the potential for the future – join us!

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