Crowdsourcing Smart Cities

The Internet of Things can be used to create a surveillance society, but also to empower bottom-up community building.

Smart Cities is a catchy concept used by big IT vendors like IBM, to market their technology vision. A smart city is what happens when the city you live in (a dumb city?) is upgraded with a specific new infrastructure: The Internet Of Things.

Imagine a pixie dust of networked sensors sprinkled on everything you see. Imagine how everything is outfitted with sensors and an Internet connection: every door, every light, every solar panel, every car, every intersection. Every coffee machine and dishwasher. Every piece of clothing in shops, and on your body.

Now imagine what you can do if you had access to all that information. Yes, that's Big Brother and yes, your protest is noted but it's gonna happen anyway. Imagine you are Big Brother, or, less ominous: the mayor of this smart city.

You can see traffic jams and, if you buy enough computers, you can predict traffic jams. You can see and modulate in real time the electricity flows, water use, waste disposal. You can optimize the planning and routing of public services to harmonize with the ebb and flow of activities in this living city. It's like Sim City for real.

The Internet of Things is being deployed already

A podcasted interview with Adam Greenfield of Urbanscale points out the curious omission in this Smart City vision: there's no mention of people. It's all about centralized data collection and processing. So, how does this development affect you and me? And more importantly: how can we influence and shape the way this technology is going to be used?

As Adam points out: most city dwellers in developed nations are already heavily instrumented. It's rather typical to carry an RFID-enabled smart card for public transport and a smart phone outfitted with camera, microphone, GPS receiver and movement sensors.

This has two major implications. First, it removes the near-future science fiction halo from smart city technologies, placing it firmly into the present as a technology stack that is already being deployed and used.

Second, we own this technology, you and me, in our pockets. A mesh network of citizen-operated smartphones is a very different beast than a police-operated crowd control system. The relevance of this political dimension has vividly been proven in the Jasmine Revolution and its Occupy offspring.

Smart Cities: from river crossing to network hub

Rapid urbanization in Asia is driving large-scale projects where complete new cities are being built, designed and engineered full of sensors and computing intelligence embedded into everything. Such places are on a fast track to realize the Panopticon vision on the Internet of Things.

The old-world city I'm living in, Maastricht, will never be able to compete with that from a techno-centric perspective. Much of the built environment here is centuries old, and some of the streets date back to Roman times. The city and its inhabitants have survived many wars and regime changes.

The constraints hard coded into the physical cityscape force us to acknowledge something that should've been obvious already: the city's best assets are not bricks, but the bright people living here, eager to explore new technology-facilitated networking spaces.

Ours is a different opportunity to explore: that of an Internet of People, using all the wonderful affordances of internetworking technologies to weave and support resilient communities. Communities that are able to leverage global connectivity when available, yet resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change and supply chain disruptions.

Seeing this opportunity requires a reconceptualization of the city space: from an aged jumble of bricks and streets at a river crossing, to a vibrant knowledge network hub with plenty of high-potential connections.

For further reading on the intersection of architecture and informatics, see: Urban Computing and its Discontents.

blog comments powered by Disqus