Smart cities are all very well, but is your city people-centric?

Cities are getting smarter, but it’s not just about technology – urban theorists believe they must become more empathically aware of deeper human needs

Shortly after sunrise on a September morning
 seven years ago, the first Dubai Metro snaked through the emirate. A city and its people were linked in a way that did not exist before.

In the context of smart cities, this moment can be viewed as something of a metaphor. The transport’s innovation, design and technology were bold. At the same time, the emissions-light mode was considerate of the environment and, most importantly, was built with satisfying people’s travel needs in mind.

A community was born with the Metro, and so exciting was its launch that passengers in their thousands travelled with no destination in mind, simply hopping on and off at random stops to enjoy the experience of travelling with fellow city dwellers.
The blue-and-silver driverless Metro may be equipped with “solar shading devices” and look a little sci-fi but without people’s enjoyment, the whole project would not have gained its spirit.

You can’t just have a city with public transport that runs really well. That’s not enough. That’s just its own kind of dystopia if you have well-run transport and no street life

Paul Owens, Co-founder of London-based research and strategy consultancy BOP

There are two schools of thought that encompass how we view the future of 21st-century cities. One concerns itself with these cities being smart, and using big data and the Internet of Things to enhance the lives of their residents. The other focuses on prioritising nature and community, and holding up data that proves public and green spaces improve emotional wellbeing. But at what point do, or can, these different ideas converge?

“You can’t just have a city with public transport that runs really well. That’s not enough. That’s just its own kind of dystopia if you have well-run transport and no street life,” says Paul Owens, co-founder of BOP, the London-based research and strategy consultancy specialising in culture and creative industries. “Empathy comes in,
 it’s enjoyable, and it feels good to be in your community. To me, a smart city is not a city that manages itself through technology.

Michael Batty is Chairman of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), which generates new insights for use in city planning through computer-based modelling. He believes that both smart and green are important factors in cities, though there could be potential con ict between the two. “Smart cities are all about increasing ef ciency of travel and energy use, while the green city is about improving less material things such as quality of life and health. There may be a clash between public and private sectors in this sense. But the smart city is one that combines the best of both.”

Knowing when exactly the bus arrives, or what is the best way to cycle, or how best to get to downtown… give a much greater sense of security; it will lower barriers and conflict, thus help with social inequalities

Mischa Dohler, Chair Professor of Wireless Communications, King's College London

Since Dubai’s Metro moment, the emirate has adopted more technologies that are responsive to its inhabitants, from setting up palm trees that double up as Wi-Fi hotspots to the Happiness Index. The latter, launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, uses more than 20 smart devices linked with a centralised network in the Dubai Municipality headquarters in Deira and other centres to gauge the public’s satisfaction with different government services. Cities elsewhere are also being reborn.

In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, there is a light system that changes with the moods of its residents. A calculator in New York helps startups become more sustainable by optimising supply chains from raw materials to land ll. Serbian cities have charging stations that also serve as both bus stops and Wi-Fi hotspots.

“I don’t think you can imagine future cities being useful without technology,” says Owens, whose consultancy comprises 20 or so social scientists and architects. “At the same time, research has shown that innovation is encouraged in cities with public spaces where people can bump into each other. Technology has a huge role for innovation encounters to happen on the street.”

Culture, he says, is also a key component, but should not necessarily be denied in the traditional sense. “When we talk about culture, we’re not just talking about arts organisations or high culture. We’re talking about people’s identities bumping into each other. That side of cities is underplayed. Technology can be overplayed. It only works if you have human factors at work, if you let that happen.”

When we talk about culture, we’re not just talking about arts organisations or high culture. We’re talking about people’s identities bumping into each other

Paul Owens, Co-founder of London-based research and strategy

Critics might argue that smart cities are only relevant to a minority and focused on the young. Urbanisation is on the rise, however, making combating the challenges of urban living – whether it be in the older or younger generations – even more pressing. “The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. More than half of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and by 2030 this number will swell to about ve billion,” according to the United Nations Population Fund.

“Big cities seem to attract the young as diversity is all-important to making such cities hot, but smart cities can be more compact and older people can travel about them more efficiently, because compact cities have greater levels of public transport,” says Batty.

Owens agrees, arguing that access to social media will make it easier for older people to be looked after and look after themselves “in an efficient and economic way”. Telemedicine, for example, could reduce the pressure on health services and provide quicker responses to those in need, including the elderly.

Even so, some might ask, where do fresh air and enjoyment come in, to combat pollution and stress? Mischa Dohler is Chair Professor of Wireless Communications at King’s College London and the cofounder of Worldsensing, a benchmark company in wireless sensing technologies for industries and smart cities. He says that a city’s smartness enables happiness in terms of reducing stress and even easing inequality. “The smartness comes from real time data, meaning citizens know what’s going on. The biggest gain here is peace of mind,” he says.

“Knowing when exactly the bus arrives, or what is the best way to cycle, or how best to get to downtown – these are features we will enjoy. It will also give a much greater sense of security; it will lower barriers and conflict, thus help with social inequalities.”

A smart city is not a city that manages itself through technology. It’s a city that mixes systems with empathy, it is a well-run city and uses technology top-down, but is also loose around the edges and leaves space for innovation

Paul Owens, Co-founder of London-based research and strategy

For Dohler, there are two types of smart city. The rst
is technology-driven, whereby elements such as sensors, the Internet of Things, bre-optics, digital and the cloud are set up and used to help citizens. The second is a more people-centric city, where social issues are first understood and later attempted to be resolved with technology and data.

“The first is often run by return of investment, the second type is driven by social return. The first has a better chance of short- and mid-term sustainability; the second provides a greater long-term solution.

“We need the first to create supply and demand; but then we’ll switch, maybe in 2020, to the second type, to ensure smart cities have true, long-term agendas with strong social benefits.”