Just How Smart?

Like it or not, the smart city is on the way and so now is the time to ask how smart we want our home to be—and how smart we need it to be.


Like it or not, the smart city is on the way and so now is the time to ask how smart we want our home to be— and how smart we need it to be. 世界正邁向智能年代,是時候探討智能城市的發展,以及我們想要怎樣的智能生活。

It could be the coolest new neighbourhood on the planet—or a peek into the Orwellian metropolis that knows everything you did last night.” That was the opening salvo in Nancy Scola's July feature in Politico opining on Google's planned Smart City in Toronto. In October 2017, the city, provincial and federal governments agreed to a CA$50 million design for Toronto's derelict eastern waterfront with Google's sister company Sidewalk Labs for the “world's first neighbourhood built from the Internet up.” Given Facebook's public relations misery in 2018, tightening privacy laws coming into effect in Europe and Google itself a constant target of anyone worried about being packaged as a commodity, all eyes are turning to Toronto, the ultimate guinea pig, to see just how fraught our urban future will be.

Getting Smart

We've been here before. In case you forgot, Disney's Epcot amusement park started life in 1966 as EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—an early smart city. Fifty years later, Toronto's smart neighbourhood, dubbed Quayside, will be a fully wired, sensor-heavy, selfoperating mini-city. Quayside will potentially be able to tap into weather reports, clear snow from sidewalks, calibrate traffic lights based on time of day or whether a public event was creating logjams, separate trash, charge residents according to their waste generation, keep streetlights on in highcrime areas and fulfil other city services we take for granted. But the issue many vocal critics have raised is what Google— still the best tool for finding porn and open restaurants—could possibly know about municipal management, and how it could do better than what we have now. Like many forms of raw data, execution works better in theory than in the reality of unpredictable cities. On top of that, the end goals of a private tech company (strong stock prices) do not sync with the goals of solid city administration (a better city for a diverse population). Our tech overlords in Silicon Valley “really do believe in their heart and soul that it's all algorithmically controllable, and it's just not,” New York Times design writer and urbanist Allison Arieff told Politico. Of course, the key to all this is data, and a smart city would provide the mother lode of something “users” (in this case residents) probably could not opt out of. Better still, who controls all this information? Quayside is being built by Sidewalk Labs, which was founded by Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor for New York (under Michael Bloomberg), and because Sidewalk quickly discovered Canadians lean more toward the European model regarding privacy than Americans do, a year of public consultations has ensured Quayside won't be the authoritarian nightmare it could be. And therein lies the smart city rub. How much are we willing to give up for a little bit of convenience?

On the far coast from Toronto, Seattle is also gearing up for smart status. The City of Seattle created a single municipal office to implement smart technologies in 2016, and is in full swing in its drive to get wired. Like Toronto, Seattleites are concerned about privacy, and the city council must consult with the public when it plans to implement a new tech product. However, Seattle isn't just

getting smarter, it’s getting more sustainable as a by-product. Its Seattle 2030 District (the office of sustainability) is partnering with CBD office tower landlords to cut carbon emissions, reduce energy consumption and better use water resources. The city, however, got its information and targets from data analytics.

Smart tech, data analytics, and urban development now go hand in hand. Sensor data is only part of the plan in building a liveable smart city. Anna Bond, developer Grosvenor’s portfolio director for its London Estate, notes that the drive to more and better public realm will be influenced by its so-called smartness. “First, it’s hard to predict where [tech] is going to go. Who has a mini-disc anymore? It’s hard to predict the future. As developers, we need to make sure we’re creating flexible buildings, so it’s easier to retrofit and to respond to what ‘it’ will be in 10 years. A lot of the tech we use now isn’t linked to buildings—uber, Deliveroo and those types of apps—but they are creating issues for our public spaces.”

The Future May be Now

Five years ago, Dubai decided it would become the smartest city in the world, and right here in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s most recent Policy Address doubled down on the ‘smarting’ of the SAR. “An important objective in promoting smart city development is to enhance the Government’s capability in innovation and the standard of city management,” said Lam in last month’s Policy Address. She noted over 40 tech projects have been proposed by various departments, including monitoring of water seepage, weather monitoring and customs clearances, with more to come. Among them: law enforcement. Lam wants to enhance law enforcement agencies by developing smart prisons, Immigration Department service enhancement, more research for security, crime prevention and “enhancing the analytical capabilities for digital and forensic evidence.” Unlike Toronto and Seattle, Dubai has a dreadful human rights record, and critics accuse Lam of having a heavy hand. How do we ensure our smart cities don’t become police states in exchange for waste management and weather cautions?

The issue may be moot for now, as Google Hong Kong's Smarter Digital City whitepaper determined Hong Kong has a way to go to catch up to digital engagement regionally, never mind globally, and the first step in becoming a truly smart city. “This year's findings show that more work needs to be done to accelerate the city's digital transformation. Consumer digital engagement remains low, while local smalland medium-sized businesses' digital adoption lags behind our nearest neighbours like Shenzhen and Guangzhou,” said Google Hong Kong's managing director, sales and operations, Leonie Valentine. “There is also a widening talent gap to address in order to meet the demands of digital transformation.”

Google's research indicated that while Hongkongers have embraced digital platforms for banking, shopping and travel, less than 20% of small business owners are e-commerce-ready and consumers lack confidence in online travel information. Without basic engagement (JLL ranked Hong Kong in the bottom three for online retailing globally), making a smart city will be tricky, never mind the lack of urban planning vision the government has demonstrated in the past and the kind of public-private cooperation smart cities demand. Planning, privacy, data ownership—and where it's located—are the tip of the smart city iceberg. For now, we'll all have to wait and see whether Toronto the Good stays that way, or that Orwellian dystopia pans out.

Sidewalk Labs Digital Infrastructure Vision

Sidewalk Labs Mobility Vision

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