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The technological battle for Smart Cities; A. Townsend for WOBI

A. Townsend,  Research Director at the Institute for the Future, talked in yesterday’s WOBI video about top-down and bottom-up smart city solutions.


Smart City solutions stemming from grassroots movements of innovation

On the one side, says Townsend, there’ s amazing grassroots innovation around smart city technology, consisting of startups and ‘˜Citizen Hackers’ . ‘˜Citizen Hackers’ are people who believe that they can make their community better in terms of sociability, transparency and inclusion. Technology is being democratized; the cost of a smartphone, which is basically a supercomputer helping us get around the city, travel and organize daily routine, is falling rapidly; we now also have fast wireless networks, allowing us to open information and communication out into the real world, thus spurring creativity.

Existing open source applications utilize sensors for data collection, environmental monitoring, sending out alerts via Twitter, e.t.c.. Some forward-looking examples include smart wrist watches for pollution monitoring in Paris, sensors in flowerpots that monitor humidity and send out a tweet to your Twitter account when it’ s time for watering, and sensors that alert people not to flush their toilets at times when sewage systems are overloaded due to storms. From a government perspective, many of these applications could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in matters of infrastructure construction and maintenance. This is called, according to Townsend, ‘˜Infrastructure Hacking’ , and it basically leads to the same outcome, by changing the people’ s behavior, rather than rebuilding the entire city.

When city governments all around the world open up their databases, empowering the grassroots by opening up that data, they really create an incredible environment for innovation. A very prominent example of this sort lies in the field of public transit. In the last 2 years, over 100 transit agencies in North America threw open their scheduled databases and real time vehicle locations. One of the most progressive, the Portland Oregon transit agency, TriMet, opened its data to the public and currently releases information about the real time location of all trains and buses through its website. What’ s most important, though, is that through their App Center around 50 smartphone apps can be accessed, all created by independent programmers and covering all sorts of needs ‘“ for bicycle riders, pedestrians, etc. (access the TriMet App Center here).



The video of A. Townsend’s WOBI talk


Smart City solutions offered by industries

On the other side, Townsend continues, the overall industry is moving much more slowly than the grassroots. The showcases for smart cities that industries have put out are progressing far more slowly. Take Songdo city, for example, a smart city project that Cisco systems is involved with in Korea, slowly being built in the course of a decade. Cisco’ s grand vision of Songdo is about implementing a series of ambitious technologies around home-based videoconferencing devices that deliver all kinds of health, education and entertainment services. However, not much has yet materialized.

Furthermore, many people are concerned about governments monitoring their movements, location and personal data. How are data measured? Who has control over it? Who has access to it afterwards? What is done with it later ‘“is it archived, destroyed, or distributed to specific parties?


The technological battle for Smart Cities

Evidently, there’ s a fundamental disagreement over what a smart city is and particularly over what data is collected, what should be measured in a smart city. In fact, we’ re gearing up for a smart city technological battle, Townsend believes ; on one side are mobile phones and social media and on the other side video surveillance, facial recognition and massive databases about citizens.

The real precedent of this conflict began in New York 50 years ago, when automobiles were introduced ‘“many of us recall Jane Jacobs, an ordinary housewife who lead the movement against the disruption of local communities because of massive construction of highways through them. In the 20th century this scenario is playing out again with the smart city technology. This is something that companies offering smart city solutions really need to think deeply about, because they could end up on the wrong side of the battle and build technologies that are not for the public interest.

Jane Jacobs’ s words, are not to be ignored:

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because they are created by everybody.

This applies both to physical cities but also to their technology systems. These grassroots city hackers are showing us this is possible.

Access the original WOBI video here.