In April I attended UPLondon, an event dedicated to Smart Cities. 3 days, 20 talks and 4 debates later however, I understood less about the topic than I did before. As if the writers of The Wire had decided to turn Calvino’s Invisible Cities into a mini-series, everything connected, everyone had a hidden agenda, and every decision caused more side effects than solutions. It made it clear that cities are complicated systems, where every attempt to define a city creates a new city on the spot.
Although grand goals are easy to distinguish and to agree on, who wouldn’t want a sustainable, safe city with equal opportunities for everyone? The details of, and conflicts between, these goals is where well-lit boulevards quickly turn into dark alleys. The simple idea of a Smart City, turns out to be an endlessly interconnected situation where no one person can understand, measure, determine or plan what to do next.
One thing that contributes to Smart City’s ambiguity are the many ways people relate to data. There were people who converted data into data, turned data into plants, who gave away money for good usage of data, who used data to sync desk lamps, people who worried about the lack of privacy, or too much privacy, about traffic light sensors, about parking lot sensors, about air sensors, about equality and inequality, and the eternal question of who would pay for all this.
Overall, there were many good ideas presented. Here’s my list of 8 of them in order of appearance:
1. System thinking
“We’re more interested in looking at systems instead of sectors” said James Taplin of Forum for the Future. Splitting up problems into ever smaller parts has done wonders for creating the most complex society in history, but it has come with painful downsides that cannot be solved by even more specialisation. Thinking about a city as a collaborative/ social/ technological/ economical/ physical/ political/ cultural/ legal/ political entity might not be the easiest, but surely is the only realistic way forwards. If designers could contribute anywhere, creating insight in this complex system would be a great place to start. Hopefully we can soon see talks appearing on lean urbanism, urban pair design, strategic design, urban prototyping and balanced urban teams.
2. The poetics of digital technology
Marjan Colletti spoke about the poetics of the digital and hiding technology behind a more human face. A world less obsessed with pictures under glass, with data and efficiency and more interested in exploring the poetic side of technology and the eternal ambiguity of being alive sounds a lot more interesting than the visions that Microsoft and Nokia try to feed us.
3. Start small and reuse
Mischa Dohler spoke about using ugly cash to kickstart a smart city revolution. He gave the example of his project of implementing sensors in parking lots. The data can be used to find a parking spot, but the sensors are paid for by people who overstay or forget to pay for their parking spot. Besides using ugly cash, I’m also wondering if we can (re)use the hundreds of daily data streams that are already recorded by companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Addison and Lee, DHL and Royal Mail. Perhaps their data could be used by local government to do better traffic planning and infrastructure management at a cost a lot lower than placing sensors everywhere themselves.
4. Trust proxies
Several people wondered how the Internet of Things could be adopted by more people and companies. One answer to get make IoT more ubiquitous and get things like house automation, automatic heating and intelligent lights widely adopted is through trusted proxies such as the iPhone and iPad. It’s interesting to see the enormous influence that the introduction of these devices has been on the rise of Internet-enabled devices. These days there is hardly a sensor left without an iPhone app.
5. Smart cities are not about technology
That cities are for people came up many times, interestingly, to argue for opposite positions. On the one hand people argued that smart cities could be rolled out in no time if only citizens, bureaucrats and business leaders wouldn’t stand in the way. On the other hand, speakers argued that it’s not about using technology to solve problems, but about enabling people to become smart citizens. In our hastiness to see technology as the answer to unasked questions, we keep on creating problems much bigger than the ones we tried to solve.
Privacy was also often discussed, almost always in the form of a question. Should cities be allowed to demand data from companies and individuals to effectively run their operations more efficiently? Should people be able to trade their data as a commodity? Should those who refuse to share be defended? If you drive the only anonymous car on the road, you’re pretty easy to spot. Should the city’s data be centralised in large databases where one small hack can reveal a whole city or should people own their own data and share it at their own choice? Should people be allowed to opt out, even when this means society as a whole is worse off? Thanks to Google glass we finally have an object that we can start using as an artefact for many of these debates, and I’m curious to see when the first court cases will show up.
7. What is tracking me?
Dr. Ian Brown wonders how we can agree or disagree to be tracked. Should devices send out special signals to notify that they are watching you? Should every wall be covered with lists of sensors listening in? Should our only means of action be to avoid these locations? Can we get data from the sensors in our periphery? Again, more questions than answers.
8. The system had a sick day
Mischa Dohler mentioned the problem with parking sensors: if the sensor spots a car who hasn’t paid, it automatically sends out an inspector. But, what if there is a very reasonable reason to park there? Perhaps the driver felt unwell and parked the car as soon as she could. Could the inspector make a human decision and pretend it was a sensor malfunctioning? Can we build space for ambiguity and exceptions in our system and refer final judgement always to a person?
The UPLondon event is a great addition to the Smart Cities and Internet of Things landscape and brought together an amazing range of speakers and ideas. I hope it will return next year and I can’t wait for the future to arrive.
* Header image by Giovanni Battista Piranesi