Let’s survey the scene: smart cities may not directly impact our lives today, certainly not mine, not here in London, but we are told they are on the horizon with over 1000 smart cities under construction or in their final urban planning stages.
Currently, we hear reports of progress and claims of technological leaps forward: Singapore uses data to power computer simulations in a planning process that laudably aims to cater to the needs of its citizens forty years hence; San Diego, aspiring to be the smartest city in America, pins its hopes on the collection of data from CityIQ sensors attached to street lights that monitor acoustic, visual and environmental data; Toronto, or rather a 12 acre site on Toronto’s eastern waterfront called Quayside, has been selected by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, to build a tech centred neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’. We should note this project has been accused of ‘surveillance capitalism’, a claim that has accompanied the resignation of several leading figures involved in its development — a point to which we shall return when we question just how ‘smart’ these proposed cities are?
So, what might a smart city look like? How would we know when we stumble across one, and even if they are currently just an item on a planner’s wish list how can they be defined and ultimately evaluated? Many argue there is no agreed definition, smart cities are context specific. That being the case, let us start with a basic description of smart technology. In simple terms, it is the harnessing of infocomm technology, the internet of things and data in order to get insights which enable us to produce smart applications.
But we are ahead of ourselves, why, we must ask, short of our love of the latest gadget, would we want to live in a smart city? Perhaps, two reasons: cities seem to be the place to be in the 21st century, with an influx of 1.3 million per week predicted to amount to an extra 2.5 billion residents by 2045. Secondly, our current version of the city is at best failing to optimise the lives of its citizens and at worst, it’s killing us: That is to say that the air we breathe in cities is laden with carcinogenic toxins:
“We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.” says Dr. Kurt Straif from the IARC.
It is then in the light of such pragmatic considerations, the health and well-being of the populace not to mention the planet, that smart cities hold out a beacon of hope. It seems we need electric, ideally driverless cars that don’t need parking spaces or traffic lights, that speak to each other and somehow disappear when they are not needed — better still, why not invest in drones that link travellers with public transport as outlined in Dubai’s Strategy Plan of 2021.
Powering these previously unimaginable societal changes, of course, is today’s most indispensable asset, data, or “21st century oil’ as it was termed by Joe Kaeser, (2018) the boss of Siemens. It is data collected from taxis and rubbish trucks that is correlated and analysed by AI before being fed back to the smartphones of the citizens of Singapore to help them avoid congestion and find parking. Similarly, in San Diego, it is a firehose of data gleaned from those CityIQ nodes that will perform a vast array of civic services that range from securing pedestrian safety to guiding first responders to emergencies, from sourcing open parking spaces to real estate planning and optimisation. Moreover, it is data, currently untapped, that must be harvested if society is to overcome the foremost obstacle to the fulfilment of the smart city dream, the imminent onset of a digital divide! That is to say unless we use technology to listen to the needs of all the people, we are inviting the prospect that poorer citizens, less empowered perhaps less educated or just less vocal may be left behind in poorer neighbourhoods, isolated in a relative analogue world.
It is perhaps concerns of this kind that led the prime minister of Singapore to declare a Smart Nation programme in preference to the initial piecemeal efforts of their Smart City initiative:
“Our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation. A nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all” PM Lee Hsien Loong (2015)
This point brings us back to surveillance capitalism and the vexed question of who owns and profits from our data. As mentioned above, such issues have come to dominate the smart city development in Toronto where the venture capitalist Roger McNamee(2019) has warned that Google cannot be trusted to safely manage residents data: The tech giant, he suggests will use “algorithms to nudge behaviour” in ways to “favour its business” Scathingly, McNamee concludes his critique with the demand that the project be abandoned on democratic grounds: “Quayside” he claims “is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.”- a cautionary note?
In an effort to gain greater depth and insight into the evolution of smart cities, I would like to more fully drill down into the concepts of ‘smart buildings’ and ‘smart spaces’, areas of research and development that many feel will provide essential building blocks in the construction of the cities of the future.
Case Study: Spacelab
Smart spaces and buildings are the major design focus of Spacelab (1), a London based firm of award-winning architects who have developed a 64-byte thermal imaging sensor for that purpose. “This sensor” Nathan Lonsdale, (2019) owner and cofounder of Spacelab assures me “is 95% accurate unlike other sensors on the market.” It will measure every architecturally relevant element of the space, even “Co2 levels which will be seen as increasingly crucial to productivity.”
These sensors produce the raw data that fuel Spacelab’s design process; a process that Nathan emphasises, is the opposite of traditional architectural practice in that it is conducted from “the inside out” and focused “on the people who use the space as opposed to the architect’s ego!” In order to galvanise their process, Spacelab have added virtual reality, Bluetooth and machine learning to the design mix: “virtual reality enables the full immersion of the designer and the client as we move through a series of iterative design cycles” explains Nathan.
Bluetooth allows Spacelab to stay in touch with user groups through push notification requests for feedback on the performance of various aspects of the building as well as their feelings about their own performance whilst in a given space. The machine learning expands the design process to include the building as a whole which can respond intelligently to the needs of the individual. AI and virtual reality, Nathan explains, can then provide a further boost to an already expanded design process: “Normally the space starts to fall apart as soon as we leave the building — not physically but rather the client’s ability to effectively use that space diminishes’, with digital twinning the designer will be able to monitor use, predict outcomes and prevent obsolescence before it happens.
Spacelabs approach to harnessing the latent power of space is bold and inspirational, it embraces the very latest in technology, but it is profoundly people centred. One further aspect of smart spaces that Spacelab touches on but is yet to fully explore is the impact of aesthetics on well-being and performance; an aspect of spatial design that is often dismissed as lacking substance even though it has aroused enthusiastic speculation and debate over the centuries. It is only now, with the aid of digital technology that our response to the appearance of our environment can be investigated accurately providing data that will hopefully promote aesthetics from being, a question of taste, to being accepted as a functionally dynamic design element.
Case study: John Hopkins and Neuroaesthetics
To these ends, Google has partnered with neuroscientists from John Hopkins University to test the impact of three differently designed rooms on well-being. Exhibited at Milan’s Design Week, visitors were equipped with a wristband that detects physical and physiological responses to each space — in particular heart rate and galvanic skin response. This data is then presented to the visitor in the form a unique painted report — note says Ivy Ross of Google (2019) “tech doesn’t have to be scary!” — marking which rooms made them feel ‘most comfortable’ or ‘at ease’ or alternatively ‘stimulated’ and ‘excited’.
This Design Week experiment is a good start in a very important area of neuroaesthetics which will hopefully lead to the creation of transformative, healing environments in the real and virtual worlds.
To complete this brief overview of smart space, we should acknowledge the presence of a wide range of digital tools and products on the market which can potentially facilitate and transform our use of space, many of which I will examine in more detail in subsequent articles. One such tool is Thinkphi’s outdoor canopy that allows its user to utilise otherwise wasted space, neatly converting it to a smart space under Thinkphi’s digitally connected canopy. Then again, Hitachi’s Lumada Video stands out for its combination of Video Insights, IoT Analytics and Data Ops which drive smart space, providing insights for clients across a full spectrum of environments. Another example might be, Meow Wolf, the art collective, who offer to convert space into an immersive digitally enhanced fantasy in the name of Experiential Art. My final example to be elaborated in a subsequent article is my own digital technology to enhance mood, health and well-being in outdoor ‘smart green spaces’
To conclude, I would like to leave the closing remarks to Nathan at Spacelab who, as we have seen, is a firm advocate of the power of smart space to transformatively impact wellbeing and performance. In particular, he draws attention to its power to create community in the workplace and beyond. This, he believes provides “the best therapy as it is based in human communication and contact.” Certainly, this brief survey of smart cities, buildings and spaces suggests that ‘smart people’ know that tech is potentially transformative but only if people and communities come first.
- Spacelab is the design agency for the lab_ family which includes a digital team, an energy team, building developers and their own foundation looking at ‘how we can give space back to communities’
Kaeser.J, 2018. economic times. [Online]
Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com
[Accessed 13 June 2019].
Lonsdale.N., 2019. Smart Spaces [Interview] (9 June 2019).
Loong.L.H., 2015. How we design and buid a smart city and nation.Singapore: s.n.
McNamee.R., 2019. ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. [Online]
Available at: https://wwwtheguardian.coim/cities
nathan, 2019. lab. architect, p. 2.
Ross.I., 2019. Goopgle opffers scientific proof that design is important.[Online]
Available at: https://www.dexeen.com