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Smart cities need soul

Smart Cities | Tom McClellan on May 23, 2018

The concept of the smart city is a hot topic right now. Indeed, it’s a subject we’ve explored on a number of occasions – here, here and here, for example.

However, while much of the discussion is around the innovative technology that will enable our cities to become smarter, this technology should be a means to an end, rather than an end itself. It’s important that, no matter how sophisticated this technology becomes, we must not lose sight of the fact that its purpose is to serve the cities and the people that live and work in them.

The aim of Dublin’s Smart Docklands initiative, for example, is to serve as a testbed for companies whose technology can be used to address the needs of local businesses, residents and government officials. Likewise, Manchester’s CityVerve programme is designed to use the latest Internet of Things technologies to meet the needs of the city’s people.

It’s important, therefore, that any technology used in a smart city initiative must be applied in a way that will deliver a better human experience. Consideration must be given as to how every sensor in every piece of street furniture will ultimately impact the user.

The technology should be used to deliver ever-more seamless services in which the end user would notice little or no change. Train services, for example, could be revolutionised through greater automation and precise signalling, combined with understanding the network situation in real time. As far as passengers are concerned, more trains will run on time. In practice, Barcelona’s traffic regulation scheme is anticipated to reduce traffic flow by 21 percent. Similarly, the use of bay sensor technology in Westminster City Council’s SmartPark solution means it’s easier for drivers to find a parking space in London.

And with the internet playing a central part in our work and social lives, connectivity is crucial to placemaking. It transforms areas into attractive places in which to live and work and enables employees and visitors to the area to work more flexibly and benefit from the digital services on offer. The City of London’s provision of free Gigabit WiFi across the Square Mile for example can be seen as a precursor to the potential benefits and opportunities soon to be unlocked by 5G.

While technology should be used to deliver a better experience for a city’s residents, workers and visitors, cities need to maintain a soul. And as more smart city initiatives are being activated around particular buildings, such as Google’s planned ‘landscraper’ in London’s Kings Cross, or its Canadian HQ in Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Quayside, it’s important that landlords continue to develop and future-proof the digital services they offer to avoid their buildings becoming obsolete in the face of the latest technology.

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