How smart does a “Smart City” make us?

Source: Intel

Thanks to the marvels of technology, we’ve managed to give life to inanimate objects. Our homes can now tell us it’s too warm, refrigerators remind us when we’re running out of eggs, and our cars can call in an emergency when we’re unable to do so. What I’m talking about is this rising phenomenon called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). By installing all sorts of sensors imaginable, we can take real-time measurements on properties such as energy usage, weight, temperature, etc. This constant stream of data is then processed and analyzed along with countless other streams of data and then well-informed decisions are made – most of the time automatically. It’s this network of objects “talking” to each other that makes up the “Internet of Things.”

Already one can imagine the many applications such a network could have – and already does have on our way of life. As technology always does, the advent of the IoT and Big Data will fundamentally change our lifestyle, and how we interact with the physical world. The integration of technology into our built environment brings about some interesting opportunities when we start considering larger networks, for instance, the city. The “Smart City,” movement is this push to integrate our city fabric with technology by using sensors and software to record data – and use this data to efficiently manage a city. The most obvious example of application is traffic management and energy usage, but almost any city service like healthcare or waste disposal can be improved. Global cities such as Rio de Janeiro can monitor and manage traffic from all over the city from one chair.

Although often overlooked, urban water systems also provide a platform for “Smart City” installations. Barcelona has installed sensors into their irrigation systems in Parc del Centre de Poblenou, which let’s gardening crews know which areas need water the most. Applying water sensors to irrigation and household water use can dramatically change how water is managed, and can definitely increase our water reservoirs. Sensors can also be applied to water distribution networks to detect exactly locations of pipe leakage and water demand. By understanding which areas require the most flow, and which areas don’t need as much, pumps can adjust their pumping rates accordingly to save on energy costs. Constant data collection also provides valuable information for more accurate and detailed models and forecasts. Water Utilities haven’t been as quick as energy utilities to adopt this technology, but hopefully such systems will be commonplace in the near future.

Thanks to technology, we are quickly advancing to the worlds we read in our science fiction books and watch in our favorite movies. So of course, such rapid adoption has met opposition. With the increased collection of data, some citizens feel that their privacy is being threatened (well, even more threatened that it already is, much of our personal information is already open for the world to see). Aside from the obvious Big Brother fears, Urban Planners are wary as such technological solutions often overlook practical needs and more simple solutions when the community is not involved. The movement of the “Smart City” is in some ways, a privileged one – and requires the existence of an already well-established infrastructure. Cities such as the Indian city of Ajmer – still struggles with adequate sanitary systems and slum housing, and yet has been chosen by the government to be a “Smart City”. Even as the government is prepared to invest $7.5 billion, the city itself is not ready. In the rush to get on the global stage, Ajmer – and many similar cities – are trying to leapfrog development, trying to bypass the nitty gritty of city development by employing technology. It’s how we end up in a world where there are more people with cellphones than people with toilets. These cities offer a unique opportunity where entirely new infrastructure systems can be developed – are we certain that the “Smart City” is best way to go about it? Solutions require both the technology and willpower of the power to use the technology correctly, and the desire to turn everything into a “Smart ____” may seem incredibly tempting at first, but should be evaluated alongside other options with care. I believe the “Smart City” movement has a lot to offer, but we should understand that by making things simpler to use (or not use) on the outside, we’ve made the system inside that more complex (whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll leave up to you).

But I am certainly not against the adoption of technology, I welcome it. There are just sectors that are in dire need of advanced technologies, and other sectors that are simply saturated with it. Like many things in life, technology is a paradox in that the easier things get, the more complicated they truly are. The opportunity for more knowledge can make us blind to the knowledge that we already have.


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