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Born from the idea of sustainability some 30-odd years after the energy crises of the 1970s illuminated the extent to which we needed to change our energy consumption habits, the "Smart City" has become the newest model for what cities of the future might look like. Whether or not this model includes the sort of technology we associate with science fiction such as flying cars or elaborate robotics, the concept of Smart Cities revolves around the fact that people are concerned with efficiency—and in order to create better societies, the integration of increasingly sophisticated technology into everyday life might be the way to achieve this.
From this idea rises the concept of the Smart City: urban environments in which innovative information and communication technologies and a proliferation of data aim to efficiently improve quality of life. But how is this rather vague aim of technologically advanced city actually being realized - and are the results as utopian as they are often made to sound?
What exactly is a Smart City?
For billions of people around the world, technology is becoming an increasingly important part of daily life. As the number of internet-enabled devices and the amount of usable data collected by organizations both increase, the Smart City concept has essentially grown from a plan to make the urban environment another of these connected devices, collecting data and responding to users' needs:
However, there are many ways to approach Smart City principles, from single small-scale interventions to large-scale overhauls of entire urban systems, and even to entire cities built from scratch using Smart City ideals. Currently, exactly what makes a city "smart" is still only loosely defined.
What kinds of technologies are a part of Smart Cities? How does this differ from “normal” cities?
Most Smart City technologies comprise information and communication systems, including systems of data collection used to improve community function. Most commonly, Smart City proposals involve embedding these technologies into the fabric of the city, changing the way that we view and experience cities. As these advances continue, architects and planners, among others, will need to take into consideration new forms of environments:
The changes to the urban environment brought about by Smart Cities, however, are not limited to the static elements of the urban environment, nor to simply adapting existing forms of city living. As shown by the Berlin team at the 2014 Audi Urban Future Award, advances in communication technology could have profound implications for transport systems, and for our relationship to travel:
However, another element of the Smart City discussion is how technology can be used in the planning stage of cities, separate from the final physical result. For example, 3D modeling has started to become a valuable tool for visualizing and designing cities, like in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver:
That technology sounds impressive, in theory - but how are Smart Cities implemented in the real world?
The first Smart Cities tended to be new cities that were built from the ground up. By far the most well-known examples are Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo in South Korea:
After these experimental flagship examples, though, many city governments started to think about how they could adapt their existing urban environment to infuse Smart City ideas. Some of the most dramatic initiatives have been undertaken by China and India, where large, urbanizing populations have forced governments to think of the best way to develop their cities:
Who controls Smart Cities?
As technology has become a way of understanding and being a part of cities, it's naturally not surprising that many major information and communication technology companies are major stakeholders in the development of Smart Cities. The exact structure of innovation, control and implementation varies per country and city, but the development - and therefore a portion of the control - of Smart Cities often comes down to major tech companies like IBM, Siemens, and Cisco:
The fact that many Smart City projects have been led by private sector companies now poses questions about data storage in relation to city planning, and how the definitions of the public and private sectors are shifting, as discussed in part of this interview with Assistant Mayor of Paris Jean-Louis Missika:
Do Smart Cities reach too far into the private sector?
Responding to the Smart Cities hype, Rem Koolhaas has frequently vocalized his concern that architecture has become less about the greater good, and more about private interests, and with vast amounts of data collection and storage in Smart Cities the issue of personal privacy and agency may be problematic.. Thus, he argues, Smart Cities are not particularly likely to achieve their goals of widespread success and benefit. Furthermore, with “smart” technologies, Koolhaas believes that Smart Cities pigeonhole residents into stupidity by excessively caring for them:
Such concerns about the streamlined city experience and the reaction of its citizens, however, may not be entirely new. As explained by Dario Goodwin, a similar phenomenon can be traced back to the 19th century, with negative portrayals of the flâneur, created from the tension between the collective and the individual experience of the city. In this century, he argues, this tension has resulted in an explosion of urban explorers, risking their lives to escape such restrictive, pre-approved urban experiences:
Is anything being done to address these issues?
Koolhaas’ criticism offers a valid challenge to Smart Cities, and presents the question, is anything being done to remedy such issues? In fact, is anything being done at all to define and measure the success of Smart Cities? While a 2013 attempt was made to create a LEED-style certification system for Smart Cities:
However, it is questionable what impact the City Protocol initiative has had on the wider push towards smarter cities. There are also few movements besides this that can claim to be a major step towards standard modeling or regulation.
With all of this in mind, who should lead Smart Cities into the future?
Unsurprisingly, many in the architecture world are arguing for increased involvement of architects when planning Smart Cities. According to Rory Stott, architects are the likely answer to the dilemma of balancing the interests of technology companies with good city-making, as architects have historically been the experts in navigating between private interests and public good:
In addition to this, writer of "Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia" Anthony Townsend argues that it isn't just tech companies that are guiding the Smart City in the wrong direction; in some cases, even the benevolent intentions of scientists in the field can lead to negative results. In response, Townsend argues that architects and planners should lead the way towards longer-term Smart Cities, even if they start with small initiatives: