Blog 2 from the IEEE International Conference on Smart Cities, Guadalajara, Mexico.
Make me a city. This is becoming a more regular request. Examples are Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Songdo in South Korea and Zenciti in Mexico. Specifically, these are being tagged as Smart Cities. The grandios approach to their conception is hard to stomach, when existing cities have taken centuries, if not millennia to form their culture, personality and reputation; but what is effectively the ultimate challenge for designers within the built environment is understandably hard to turn down.
Previous attempts to build cities from scratch demonstrate how fragile and risky they can be. Take a look at the “desert cities” in Egypt such as Al-Shuruq and New Cairo which have vacancy rates of up to 80% according to this article, China’s so called “ghost cities” like the downright strange English town replica, Thames Town, and the Spanish town of Ciudad Valdeluz.
You could also add to this the struggle of the $18bn Masdar city to attract companies to relocate there despite the huge investment into the project. Co.EXIST say that “a representative remains cautious, asking for patience–a surprising statement in a state which makes a claim on all street corners to be the fastest and first–and finally admits that it is–politically–unthinkable to abandon such a project.”
Even existing cities, built on a wealth of experiences and guidance have slumped. Detroit and it’s reliance upon the automobile industry is the obvious example but even the northern manufacturing-focussed cities in the UK such as Hull, and even New York came perilously close to imploding after the decline of the textile industry.
Therefore, it is interesting to hear a recurring theme arising from this conference on Smart Cities: that a smart city is not a goal, but a process. To paraphrase Roberto Sarocco, the President of EIT Italy, “You can’t build/make a smart city, a smart city is a process, constantly providing the framework in which innovations can be implemented on a constantly morphing basis”.
So what is this framework? Put simply, the framework is the ability for a huge number of players to create data, and for a single player to assimilate data from a wide range of sources. This player may be anything from a lamp post or a car to a person.
Then along come the innovators. Kirk Sheba, a director of research at Intel, gave a presentation, not on the all encompassing control of Intel over a city, but discrete projects within their Living Labs whereby they are plucking out useful data from the built environment and looking to see how this can overcome an identified problem, such as the efficiency of Hyde Park’s maintenance or the effectiveness of catalytic paints on increasing air quality.
The majority of work at this conference is related to relatively small projects with potentially really useful outcomes when used in specific circumstances. If implemented together, our cities have a better chance of becoming Smart Cities, with a higher resilience to change. This incremental approach to creating smart cities is the best shot at creating resilient, effective and trusted cities as opposed to the sweeping approach of vanity projects. The big challenge in the world of Smart Cities is the balancing of incremental growth with accelerating urbanisation and increasing global populations.