Smart Cities – are we creating Pinocchio or Frankenstein?

Everyday we can read about new ideas that bring the concept of the Smart City to life. From water systems that predict demand based on the weather forecast and set storage levels appropriately, to street lighting that senses traffic and pedestrian movement to reduce power requirements in quiet neighbourhoods and power management systems that use dormant electric vehicles as a micro storage mechanisms.

All of these amazing concepts paint a new picture of the Smart City, not so much as a series of connected systems but as an intelligent, living and breathing beast whose purpose in life is to improve the Quality of Life of it’s inhabitants. Much in the same way as perhaps the human body plays host to billions of helpful bacteria, providing the perfect environment for them to thrive, except in this case we bacteria are designing the host instead of adapting to it.

At the heart of the Smart City is the network, or central nervous system through which flows data that controls all of the peripheral functions. This system feeds on and digests information from the cloud, soaking up the ambient intelligence that permeates our lives, and that until now has been unavailable for consumption.

To this raw material of environmental data it adds a level of intelligence that allows it to analyse this data, hypothesise on predicted consequences and take action to preserve the Status Quo based on the balance of probability. It is more than logical, it is Smart.

Through this Nervous System the Smart City “knows” everything. It knows that there is a light on in your bathroom but that nobody has been there for 10 minutes. It knows that there is an accident on the main street and that a traffic jam is imminent that will prevent emergency vehicles from reaching the spot. It also knows that the cold weather means that more people will be taking hot baths which will put a strain on the water and power systems, and it compensates for all of these scenarios by taking the appropriate action. It turns your bathroom light off. It diverts traffic courtesy of the traffic lights to reduce delays and clear a path for emergency vehicles. And it begins to store more power and water to allow for predicted demand.

In this sense, the Smart City of the future is an instinctive organism which is every bit as complex as a living bio-chemical system such as a coral reef.

But who will design build this creature? Right now, the design of this magnificent beast is vertically aligned, the ultimate illustration of a silo mentality, with very few initiatives which cross vertical stove pipes. If we continue down this path it is hard to imagine anything other than a Smart City that is more akin to Frankenstein than Pinocchio, with disparate systems roughly cobbled together to give basic functionality but little hope of evolution into a more graceful, serene and effective creature in the medium term.

Maybe it is time we all began to lobby our elected leaders to make sure that we begin this journey in the right way, with centrally-organised design and creation from an authority with a pure motive and no vertical agenda – that is to make our lives better.

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