Access and Feeds

Smart Cities: Living in a World of Perpetual Beta

By Dick Weisinger

The idea of smart cities is taking off.  Around the world, cities and their architects are pledging to make their cities smart. Smart cities have sustainable energy and development; they have an integrated information, communications and technology (ICT) system; they promote Open Data.  Examples of cities building themselves to be ‘smart’, include Bogata, Columbia; Masdar, UAE; Accra, Ghana; Yachay, Ecuador; Guadalajara, Mexico; Dholera, India; Lima, Peru; Lusail, Qatar; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kalkara, Mata.  Prime minister Narendra Modi even says that he has plans to build 100 smart cities in India.

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Usman Haque, founding partner of the urban consultancy Umbrellium, explains that “you’ll be able to get to work on time; there’ll be a seamless shopping experience, safety through cameras, et cetera.”

It sounds good, but not everyone thinks that smart cities are a smart idea.

Particularly in Europe there’s a backlash to the idea, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, for example, writes that “when we look at the visual language through which the smart city is represented, it is typically with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colors. The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control. Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression? And rather than discarding urban intelligence accumulated over centuries, we must explore how to what is today considered ‘smart’ with previous eras of knowledge.”

Leo Hollis, author of Cities Are Good For You, worries that smart cities can become over-reliant on technology and the interconnections between subsystems.  If one system fails, like dominos, the whole system might collapse.  Smart cities will be built on software, and software is fallible.  There are bugs, there are crashes, there are holes that allow hacks.  Hollis says the smart city will be the “perpetual beta city”.

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