SIX NOTES FOR SMART CITY FUTURES
"You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.
--Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972
"Technology is the answer. But what was the question?"
--Cedric Price, British Architect in a 1979 talk
In 1985, the folklorist and writer Italo Calvino worked on a series of lectures to be delivered during his tenure as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Each contemplated a core value from language and literature for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of the millenium ahead. Calvino finished his lectures on Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity; he died before he could work on Consistency, the final lecture of his series.
A decade earlier, Calvino wrote Invisible Cities as an imagined conversation between a young Marco Polo and an ageing Kublai Khan, with each episode pinpointing the complex of ideas, aspirations, tendencies, and realities each city represents.
Now closing on two decades into the new millennium, we take inspiration both from Calvino's futurism and his city imaginaries to consider one contemporary idea that stands poised to transform our urban landscapes: the smart city.
Where Calvino uses a literary sensibility to unravel the unseen dynamics of the city, however, we need data. We ask: what are the stories that data tells? How can we gather these, and what sense can we make of them to write new stories of cities for the future?
The “smart city” idea is a response to two massive shifts which have both already happened and are still happening: rapid urbanization and the increased ubiquity of digital technology. Consider these separate sets of facts:
Today, our cities are home to over 3.5 billion people
· United Nations projections show urban populations expanding to 6.5 billion by 2050, and 8 billion by 2100--80% of the world will live in cities; (Townsend, 2)
· Much of this urban expansion will happen in unplanned and underserved city slums in parts of the world that are least able to cope with added demands.
Today, over 6 billion connected things are in use, world-wide.
· In the same year, close to 30 billion objects will be connected to the internet--creating unprecedented and still-growing flows of structured and unstructured data:
· Much of this data is and will continue to be citizen-generated—laying the ground not only for new forms of public participation, but also new ways of knowing people as individuals and as collectives.
How do these two realities collide? We take Townsend's working definition of the smart city as our own: smart cities are "places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems" (Townsend 15).
The "smart city" is an idea yet emerging--here more formed, there still an indefinite aspiration. The overarching questions that need addressing are the following:
How does data help us to know a city? Or, more particularly, how does big data—infinitely more complex, diverse, and minute than any we ever gathered through the census or other survey methodologies—help us to re-acquaint ourselves with our neighborhoods, our cities, and our selves? How does it propel new initiatives, new advocacies, new policy, and new relationships with urban life?
As we gain this knowledge, how can we use it to tackle the most pressing and oppressing realities of our times? Given our propensity to congregate in increasingly dense urban spaces rife with contest and inequity, how can we address:
· vast disparities in income, representation, access, capabilities, and care;
· incomprehensible scales of environmental degradation;
· physical and digital movement tending to the speed of blur;
· the folding in of past deeds, misdeeds, monuments, and memories into our presents and futures; and
· rapidly changing relations with the institutions to which we remain beholden?
Certainly, there is much hype about the promise of big data to solve all urban problems; many scholars are quick to point out, matter-of-factly echoing Calvino, that "big data and new data analytics are only as good as the questions we pose and theories we generate to better understand them." If the idea is to use information, analytics, and research to drive urban development in more and more precise and fine-grained ways, our cities will only be as smart as we are ourselves in our quest to discover them. The real promise of “smart” may be realizable only if we continue to seek knowledge about our cities that is poetic, historical, economic, political, architectural, philosophical, anthropological, mathematical, epidemiological and much more—that is, if we continue to seek knowledge not grounded in data alone.
The promise of data itself appears to lie in two areas.
First, in providing us curious peepholes into urban dynamics, allowing us to see our cities as never before: Yelp reviews tell us about race and gentrification or about the impact of ethnic and racial segregation on consumption. Twitter data leads us to maps of the diffusion of ideas across cultures. Floating Sheep uses geo-coded, user-generated data to create sometimes playful, sometimes provocative, always engaging maps of everything from Christianity, the abortion debate, and hate speech to pizza, and bowling alleys and strip clubs. Flikr photos tell us about urbanity as a value in London and Berlin. Satellite data on lights at night stands as proxy for GDP growth. Images from Google Street View unexpectedly “predict income at the block group level far better than race or education.”
Such data can, second, help us know smaller or previously un-mapped geographic areas, which are poorly understood with conventional Census data alone. How do we focus all the promise of data without getting lost in its hype?
To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the “expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:
Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.
Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.