Of all the smart tech – and by smart we mean connectivity and the access to a vast world of information – cities remain the ultimate technology for interaction. They’re machines for the exchange of goods, information and culture, and they place us in close contact with strangers, colleagues, potential mates and friends through complicated networks of streets, squares, lifts, buildings, trains and infrastructure. And when cities are combined with wireless internet and the internet of things (IOT), they become the most complex and information rich global infrastructure ever built. Big data, created by IOT, is transforming the way cities operate, and potentially, if we play our cards right, the way they perform. This is critical because people are coming to cities in greater numbers than ever before. We are an urban species. And most of this growth is happening in the developing world, which is why India is busily building 100 smart cities and China has plans for 200. And it’s why Australia, lagging in regards to its smart cities, needs to seriously push things in this space. Outnumbered in a world of our own wireless creations (for every one of us, there’s at least two additional ‘things’ connected to the internet) it’s time we gave a little thought to how this IOT is changing our cities and started designing the future. The convergence of three megatrends (big data, internet of things and urban population growth) present enormous challenges – slums, digital disruption, electronic espionage, traffic jams, blackouts, water shortages and so on. But they also offer amazing opportunities. IOT and its billions of sensors, including a smart phone in every pocket, create an ambient intelligence that senses, feels and thinks to create a virtual city within, and throughout the real city. Smart cities are about using information technologies and IOT to make these urban environments more livable, safer, healthier, more connected and far easier to navigate. They do this by presenting citizens with the power of choice and making the city itself more responsive. It’s about intelligent ‘hacks’ that help us design, manage and interact with our traditional cities in smarter ways – smart buildings will monitor themselves, control energy and water use and maybe even turn the kettle on when it knows the owner is coming home. Tomorrow’s smartest cities will have digital concierges to automatically book meetings, car spaces, driverless cars and appointments directly from a phone’s calendar. They’ll have virtual augmented reality apps that allow you to be in multiple offices at once – to walk through walls’ to speak to a colleague in the next building. They’ll have buildings that transform with interactive digital screens, luminous designs and personalised climates responding to the emotions and sensitivity of inhabitants. In fact, these technologies are already here. We just need to be brave enough to embrace them. All of this doesn’t mean your neighbourhood will suddenly look like something out of Bladerunner – the smartest cities remain surprisingly traditional, think Amsterdam, downtown San Francisco and Barcelona. And for a smart city to succeed, a firm focus must centre on livability. Because the killer app, as Anthony Townsend points out in his book Smart Cities, is the one that makes us more sociable. The technologies that are generating our smart cities are not new inventions, in so much as they are new applications. Today, information surrounds us in virtual datascapes that influence everything that we do from the moment we wake up – tracing, monitoring and informing our movements, interactions and even sleep patterns. And you can be fearful of that – some predictions aren’t that rosy; smart cities seen by many as an extension of the censorship and surveillance state, because with data, Big Brother’s bigger than even Orwell imagined. And the digital landscape is also a playground for hitech criminals whose greatest trick is identity theft – and security must first be dramatically tightened for smart cities to truly flourish. But smart cities done the right way will allow us to relate to each other in more creative ways. And there are three key areas necessary for this kind of innovation to happen. The first is ‘open data.’ Data is the oil of our age and the biggest companies are those that own it. To make our cities work as we want, we need to keep control of the information we currently give away free to Google, Apple and co without recourse. The second is the importance of coding for good urban design. Automated vehicles are great, but they make congestion worse unless we write code that puts the city first. And the final key is digital literacy. To have any conversation about smart cities we need to know what we’re talking about. So let’s start by educating our leaders on the importance of investment in fast internet. I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting on the NBN. Are you listening Malcom? Of course you are, because since May, you’ve been eagerly collecting my metadata.
THE URBAN DESIGNER RUNS TH E SMART CITIES RESEARCH CLUSTER AT UNSW, A GROUP CAMPAIGNING TO USE TECH TO IMPROVE URBAN AREAS. HE TELLS GQ HOW TOWNS OF THE FUTURE MAY LOOK.