Where are the “smart” technologies to protect our cities’ culture?

No culture in sight: the 2015 Internet of Things Solutions World Congress (IOTSWC) in Barcelona. Image: Getty.

This week Sadiq Khan opened up London Tech Week, proclaiming in his speech that he wanted to make London the “Smartest city in the world”.

The word ‘smart’ in this context does not mean providing better education for Londoners. Instead, it means using technology to best automate, structure and arrange the city’s infrastructure, to make it work better for all of us.

Khan is right to say that London’s need to smarten up: across our old, expansive city, many different solutions are needed. And global conglomerates are dedicating thousands of hours and millions of dollars to aggregating big swaths of data to determine how to improve the places we live – not to mention, how to better target us as customers. From driverless cars to seeing eye robots, the assumption is that these solutions will be better for all of us – and our cities will be better because of them.

This word ‘smart’ is mentioned in reference to cities a lot. There are endless conferences and trade fairs exploring ‘smart cities’ or ‘Internet of things’ technologies. Most cities now have tech weeks – and the term is now so regarded that it’s often capitalised as ‘SMART’. But spending time in this world, hearing from the many mayors at the many conferences, you start to wonder who these solutions are being tailored for, and what aspects of city life are they ignoring, often unintentionally.

Take music, arts and culture, for example. At the world’s largest smart cities event, Barcelona’s Smart Cities Expo, there’s little mention of it. And if smart cities technology is being deployed to change how we experience life in our cities, than we must think about these implications.

There are hundreds of tech- and application-based solutions to problems in music’s value chain, from getting it to our eyes and ears, to ensuring artists are paid for the work they create. Some are mainstream, such as accepting that every song ever written is available on your phone through Spotify or Tidal. Some are less front-facing, including solutions for how royalties are distributed – the micro-penny economy that converts the playing of a song into money for the songwriter and performers.


But where are the technologies that can bring music into communities more – or make local governments more accountable for supporting, sustaining and developing music and cultural ecosystems? Is there an app to assess or measure one’s music policy, or a piece of kit that helps create one in the first place? Can we develop better thinking to prioritise the value of what happens inside a building, rather than simply calculating value on the land itself?

We’re tackling issues with traffic, making our fridges smarter, improving health care and automating our sprinklers. But are we enhancing our systems and technologies to make music and culture more widely available and accessible for all of us within our city limits?

For example, public squares could be better outfitted – through their wifi networks and cabling – to create ‘plug and play’ opportunities for buskers. Digital tipping could ensure they get paid. Through Blockchain, it could happen in real time.

School choirs could record impromptu performances in bandstands, and have them available online instantaneously. Music venues could be equipped with sound sensors that let the venue owner know, in real time, if their venue has breached noise regulations.

Land could be mapped for ‘plug and play’ festival sites. Permitting could be automated. And we could calculate the connection between the availability of music in schools, and the success of a place’s venues and festivals. Can technology better understand such a correlation? Because any place that prioritises its music and arts is smarter and one that doesn’t. And culture has not been subject to the same due diligence as other urban problems in the smart cities debate.

I’m not saying we should prioritise improving our music scenes over sorting out our traffic, or hospital waiting times, or civic bureaucracy. But let’s treat it as important, as a problem that could be tackled through the civic-focused technologies that makes all our lives better. Making music smarter will make cities smarter, too. It’s worth a try.

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London Overground is experimenting with telling passengers which bits of the next train is busiest

There must be a better way than this: Tokyo during a 1972 rail strike. Image: Getty.

One of the most fun things to do, for those who enjoy claustrophobia and other people’s body odour, is to attempt to use a mass transit system at rush hour.

Travelling on the Central line at 6pm, for example, gives you all sorts of exciting opportunities to share a single square inch of floor space with a fellow passenger, all the while becoming intimately familiar with any personal hygiene problems they may happen to have. On some, particularly lovely days you might find you don’t even get to do this for ages, but first have to spend some exciting time enjoying it as a spectator sport, before actually being able to pack yourself into one unoccupied cranny of a train.

But fear not! Transport for London has come up with a plan: telling passengers which bits of the train have the most space on them.

Here’s the science part. Many trains include automatic train weighing systems, which do exactly what the name suggests: monitoring the downward force on any individual wheel axis in real time. The data thus gathered is used mostly to optimise the braking.

But it also serves as a good proxy for how crowded a particular carriage is. All TfL are doing here is translating that into real time information visible to passengers. It’s using the standard, traffic light colour system: green means go, yellow means “hmm, maybe not”, red means “oh dear god, no, no, no”. 

All this will, hopefully, encourage some to move down the platform to where the train is less crowded, spreading the load and reducing the number of passengers who find themselves becoming overly familiar with a total stranger’s armpit.

The system is not unique, even in London: trains on the Thameslink route, a heavy-rail line which runs north/south across town (past CityMetric towers!) has a similar system visible to passengers on board. And so far it’s only a trial, at a single station, Shoreditch High Street.

But you can, if you’re so minded, watch the information update every few seconds or so here.

Can’t see why you would, but I can’t see why I would either, and that hasn’t stopped me spending much of the day watching it, so, knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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