Smart Cities – technologies at the service of people

Today’s magazine section of the BBC News website contains a thoughful article on smart cities. Called, ‘How will our future cities look?’ by Jane Wakefield, a BBC technology reporter, she explores the possible limits of technical solutions to social issues. And for my money, anyone who quotes Jane Jacobs approach to social issues within cities, as she does here, is a serious commentator.
While we cannot say that technology has no solutions to deep-seated problems in urban areas – consider the massive social improvements when city engineers pumped clean water into the Victorian slums – there is a sense that sometimes being ‘smart’ just becomes an urban technology arms race.
For example, there are lots of smart technology proposals to better manage urban traffic jams and parking space shortages. But the benefits seem to flow to the richest drivers with the latest gadgets, meanwhile the council is asked to fund sensors at every junction or even every parking space. A root-cause analysis might look instead at methods to dampen long-distance commuting while improving the transport choices and the street environment of poorer inner-city areas through which the commuter highways can gash.
Smart cities will need to use technologies to improve sustainability by reducing demand; whereas only trying to improve supply (of empty roads or whatever) risks becoming a resource-intensive chase towards a mirage. Many of the so-called urban renewals of the 1960s in the USA, and parts of the UK, promised that multi-lane urban highways and motorways would reduce congestion and cause cities to prosper. In fact the opposite occured and the inner areas declined even faster, as Jane Jacobs observed at the time in New York and elsewhere. More recently cities such as Boston have removed or buried those 1960s highways to replace them with linear parks, especially near down town waterfronts.
My sense is that the smartest cities will be those that harness certain technologies that best enable people living in the city to improve its sustainability and quality of life. Clean water was one. Local newspapers are another. Link:

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