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Smart-City Technology

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In the smart city, technology is not independent in its form or application from the influence of other inputs. It needs to be designed as a complement to human and social capital, evolving in response to the social and economic goals of the urban community or the changing strategies for achieving those goals. In Europe, where the concept is somewhat further developed than in the United States, it has been suggested that the components of a smart city are other “smarts”: economy, mobility, environment, people and governance. In each aspect, ICT can play a role, but it is only part of the story.

How strongly a technology influences the organization of a society or an economy has long been a subject of debate and discussion, with views ranging from a belief in “technological determinism”—that developments in technology define the path of economic, social and even cultural development—to assertions that new technologies most often lead to unintended, unexpected and usually unwanted consequences. In the middle: a belief in “soft determinism,” that new technologies do indeed “push” societies in certain directions, but the applications can be guided by societal needs, the “pull” factors that reflect the other assets and goals of a society.

Information and communication technology provides an example. Especially in its networking capability, ICT has made it possible to develop virtual communities with shared interests, multinational corporations that coordinate activities across the world in real time and are not locked into one political entity, telecommuting for individuals that eases the need to be close to one’s place of employment, global trade opportunities for the smallest as well as the largest businesses, and a shift of de facto power from governments to nongovernmental organizations. This trend has led many to assume that the most prevalent impact of ICT has been to diminish the importance of geography per se. Yet not only have communities persisted in the face of this burgeoning technology, they have grown—and nowhere more so than among the most technically sophisticated communities: Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area, Boston’s Route 128, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Sophia Antipolis in France, and the cities of Bangalore and Singapore. Technology does not trump physical community; it does not substitute for social capital, good governance or environmental health. In fact, as it turns out, ICT, properly employed, can enhance physical community and hence its role in creating smart cities.

ICT as Problem-Solver

Information and communication technology is not a single technology; it is a group of technologies that perform four kinds of functions. First, there are devices and instruments that gather information—measure things, detect signals, take pictures, record events. These are cameras, sensors and other detectors. The information they gather, often in overwhelming amounts, is communicated to other devices that can store it, sort it and analyze it—the second set of functions. These are the chips and the software at the heart of computers, smartphones, identity recognition technology, automobile safety systems and much more. This processed information can trigger actions, for example, automatically changing the sources and routings in an electrical power network or controlling the traffic signals on highway on-ramps. It can also be the basis of advice promulgated widely—to drivers on the road, to police or fire departments, to health agencies or environmental protection agencies. These technologies of communication, wired or wireless, constitute the third set of functions.

Last, there is the extraordinary development of network technology: the ability to connect and integrate all of these systems for gathering, processing and using information so that all of the devices and their users are effectively linked to each other, able to pass information from one to another (or one to many others) in any direction, with each user a source of information (or the initiator of action) as well as a recipient. Moreover, because digital networks are designed to do no more than connect machines and devices, regardless of what those machines and devices do or how they do it—which is referred to as an “end-to-end” system—the end-users are free to design the applications of ICT, rather than any central authority. The possibilities for innovation are almost endless, limited only by the imagination of the users or, one hopes, the needs of society.

In the case of cities, the societal pull comes from:

  • The need to make stable, affordable power available
  • The challenge of providing efficient transportation as population increases and cities spread
  • The growing concern for environmental protection
  • The demand for enhancement of government services and democratic governance
  • The drive for effectiveness of education
  • The quality of daily life

The challenge to smart cities is to find ways to use ICT technologies—signal collection, information processing, and command and control—to respond to these pulls.Ê

Thus, for example, smart power grids cannot only balance overall supply and demand in real time but also can offer and meter differential pricing schemes to consumers who, in turn, can alter their usage patterns minute-to-minute or hour-to-hour to minimize their own costs. The smart grids also are able to incorporate distributed power generation capacity (customers who generate as well as consume energy) into their computer programs, bringing distributed sources online as needed in peak periods and thus reducing the high capital costs of building standby generators to serve peak capacity needs.

In transportation, gathering information and processing it in real time means not only that impending traffic tie-ups can be anticipated and communicated to drivers on the highway, but also that drivers can be guided to the best alternative routes to avoid the jam.

Smartphones can be used for banking, for virtual shopping while waiting for a bus or train, for paying in a supermarket and for voting. Listservs can function as local community bulletin boards, sharing information on reliable businesses and services, neighborhood security issues, or news. Identification cards can contain medical information easily read by rapid responders. Public wide-area networks can make every park and public square a public library. And when taken together, these very few examples and many not mentioned create a smart city.

Anticipating Ripple Effects

As with all new technology developments, ICT creates ripple effects. The techno-skeptics argue that these tend to be unanticipated and, most often, negative effects. These effects need not be unanticipated if policymakers and technology developers together look for and address them. Generally they fall into three categories: induced changes in behavior that have wide-reaching effects beyond the primary target; technical and policy changes that shift power and impose costs differentially on various groups; and technologies whose implementation affects or requires a modification of historical values. Some examples:

  • Online shopping can change the nature of neighborhoods, displacing convenience stores and cutting back on face-to-face contact between neighbors, much as online bookstores have displaced independent booksellers. Shopping as a social experience can disappear and small businesses along with it. Are there ways of avoiding that outcome (for example, subcontracting order fulfillment to local businesses)?
  • Complex electric-power pricing structures can give significant advantages to major users who can more easily determine optimal strategies for minimizing their power costs, while individuals lacking sophisticated tools or flexibility actually find themselves facing higher electricity bills.
  • Many of the most powerful ICTs depend on gathering information about people in the network—the routes their automobiles are taking, credit information, preferences, medical information—leading to a trade-off between a loss of privacy and a gain of private convenience, security or public good. Thus, advances in ICT are forcing society to examine the meaning of privacy, the means for achieving it, and the balance between privacy rights and the obligations of the social contract.
  • Freedom of information is clearly enhanced by new ICT developments. This has led, and continues to lead, to a shift from representative to direct democracy and increasing pressure for openness in government deliberations. It is not an unambiguously positive development in that it diminishes the role of expertise and delegated authority (thus the move toward referenda to decide issues) and constraints on the political negotiating process (think of WikiLeaks). Thus, as in the case of privacy, ICT should stimulate a public discussion of the appropriate balance between representative and popular governance, and any necessary limits on freedom of information.

The notion of smart cities epitomizes the role that new technologies can play in coping with the challenges of urbanization while meeting the social, economic and political goals of a society. But it also suggests the usefulness of technology depends on its integration with other forms of capital, and implementation must proceed with sensitivity to its limitations and broad effects. In a sense, the smart city concept requires and encourages a clarification of a society’s core values—not only how we want a city to function efficiently, be economically competitive and provide a comfortable place to live, but also whether the city we design is a proper expression of the society’s deepest values.


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