How can we make sure smart cities benefit everyone?

A smog-cleaning tower in Beijing is an example of technology improving residents’ lives. Image: Imaginechina/AP.

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in mega-cities. How all those people live, and what their lives are like, will depend on important choices leaders make today and in the coming years.

Technology has the power to help people live in communities that are more responsive to their needs and that can actually improve their lives. For example, Beijing, notorious for air pollution, is testing a 23-foot-tall air purifier that vacuums up smog, filters the bad particles and releases clear air.

This isn’t a vision of life like on “The Jetsons.” It’s real urban communities responding in real-time to changing weather, times of day and citizen needs. These efforts can span entire communities: they can vary from monitoring traffic to keep cars moving efficiently or measuring air quality to warn residents (or turn on massive air purifiers) when pollution levels climb.

Using data and electronic sensors in this way is often referred to as building “smart cities,” which are the subject of a major global push to improve how cities function. In part a response to incoherent infrastructure design and urban planning of the past, smart cities promise real-time monitoring, analysis and improvement of city decision-making. The results, proponents say, will improve efficiency, environmental sustainability and citizen engagement.

Smart city projects are big investments that are supposed to drive social transformation: decisions made early in the process determine what exactly will change. But most research and planning regarding smart cities is driven by the technology, rather than the needs of the citizens. Little attention is given to the social, policy and organizational changes that will be required to ensure smart cities are not just technologically savvy but intelligently adaptive to their residents’ needs. Design will make the difference between smart city projects offering great promise or actually reinforcing or even widening the existing gaps in unequal ways their cities serve residents.

City benefits from efficiency

A key feature of smart cities is that they create efficiency. Well-designed technology tools can benefit government agencies, the environment and residents. Smart cities can improve the efficiency of city services by eliminating redundancies, finding ways to save money and streamlining workers’ responsibilities. The results can provide higher-quality services at lower cost.

Tapping a bank card on a bus farebox transfers payment. Image: Transport for London.

For instance, in 2014, the Transport for London transit agency deployed  a system that lets residents and London’s 19m visitors pay for bus and subway fares more quickly and safely than in the past. When riders touch or tap their phone or other mobile device on a reader when entering and exiting the bus and subway system, a wireless transaction deducts the appropriate amount from a user’s bank account.

The city benefits by reducing the cost of administering its fare payment system, including avoiding issuing and distributing special smartcards for use at fareboxes. Transit users benefit from the efficiency through convenience, quick service and capped fares that calculate the best value for their contactless travel in a day or across a seven-day period.

Environmental effects

Another way to save money involves real-time monitoring of energy use, which can also identify opportunities for environmental improvement.

The city of Chicago has begun implementing an “Array of Things” initiative by installing boxes on municipal light poles with sensors and cameras that can capture air quality, sound levels, temperature, water levels on streets and gutters, and traffic.

The data collected are expected to serve as a sort of “fitness tracker for the city,” by identifying ways to save energy, to address urban flooding and improve living conditions.

Perhaps the largest potential benefit from smart cities will come from enhancing residents’ quality of life. The opportunities cover a broad range of issues, including housing and transportation, happiness and optimism, educational services, environmental conditions and community relationships.

Efforts along this line can include tracking and mapping residents’ health, using data to fight neighborhood blight, identifying instances of discrimination and deploying autonomous vehicles to increase residents’ safety and mobility.


Ensuring focus on service, not administration

Many of the efficiencies touted as resulting from smart city efforts relate to government functions. The benefits, therefore, are most immediate for government agencies and employees. The assumption, of course, is that what benefits government will in turn benefit the public.

However, focus on direct improvements for the public can become an afterthought. It can also be subverted for other reasons.

For instance, global market projections for smart cities are huge. Companies see big opportunities for selling technology to cities, and local leaders are eager to find new investors who will improve their communities. That can make smart cities appear to be a win-win situation.

City leaders may also use smart city discussions as a vague “self-congratulatory” method to emphasise their forward thinking, and to reinforce a broadly positive – if undefined – view of the city. By talking about greater connectivity and improved technical capabilities, city leaders can market the city to future residents and businesses alike.

But if leaders focus on smart city projects as helping government, that won’t necessarily improve residents’ lives. In fact, it can reinforce existing problems, or even make them worse.

Who wins from smart city projects?

When governments decide on smart city projects, they necessarily choose whom those efforts will benefit – and whom they will neglect. Even when it’s unintentional – which it often is – the results are the same: not all areas of a smart city will be exactly equally “smart”. Some neighborhoods will have a greater density of air-quality sensors or traffic cameras, for example.

And not all smart city projects are having completely positive effects. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to build 100 smart cities as a way to manage the needs of his country’s rapidly urbanising population. Yet the efforts are bumping up against challenges new and old. These include longstanding problems with land ownership documentation, developing policies to accommodate new markets and limit the old, and conflicts with vulnerable populations pushed out to make room for new smart city initiatives.

In Philadelphia, a programme intended to provide the city’s low-income, underemployed residents with job training on their smartphones didn’t address widespread socioeconomic inequality, among other problems. As one researcher put it, the programme was “empty policy rhetoric” designed to attract business.

Songdo City from G-Tower. Image: Fleetham/creative commons.

The much-ballyhooed Songdo City development in South Korea involved enormous investment from the public and private sectors to create a smart city billed as an urban hub of innovation and commerce. And yet, 10 years after it began, its highest praise has been from those who call it a “work in progress”. Others, less charitable, have called it an outright failure. The reason should give us pause when designing other smart cities: Songdo was designed and built as a top-down, “high-tech utopia” with no history and, crucially, without people at its center.

To avoid these troubled fates, officials, business leaders and residents alike must keep a critical eye on smart city efforts in their communities. Projects must be both transparent and aimed at publicly desirable improvements in society. Technology cannot become the focal point, nor the end goal. Smart city innovation, like all urban development and redevelopment, is a very political process. Residents must hold city leaders accountable for their efforts and their implications – which must be to improve everyone’s lives, not just ease government functions.The Conversation

Kendra L. Smith is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Arizona State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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