- Truly smart cities will emerge as inhabitants and their many electronic devices are recruited as real-time sensors of daily life.
- Networking the ubiquitous sensors and linking them to government databases can enhance a city’s inventiveness, efficiency and services.
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On January 25 the streets of Cairo erupted in protest against then president Hosni Mubarak’s repressive Egyptian regime. Over the next 72 hours the government shut down the country’s Internet service and mobile-phone system in an attempt to squelch the rebellion—to no avail: a rich ecosystem of Facebook conversations, Twitter outbursts and chat-room plans had already unified millions of Cairo’s people, who continued the relentless uprising. The government backed down and restored communications to keep the country’s economy on life support, but the masses kept up the pressure until Mubarak resigned 14 days later.
Just weeks before, during Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” dissident blogger and protest organizer Slim Amamou used the mobile social app Foursquare to alert his friends of his January 6 arrest. By “checking in” to Foursquare’s virtual depiction of the jail in Tunis where he was being held, Amamou revealed his location to a global web of supporters and immediately grabbed the international spotlight. The news stories sparked further uprisings, and longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was soon ousted.
Across the archipelago of places where the “Arab Spring” revolts played out, citizens used new Internet applications and ubiquitous mobile phones to wage a battle over the soul of their cities, shifting resources back and forth from cyberspace to “cityspace.” Contrast those transformations with a handful of large urban development projects that have been vying to be crowned the model “smart city” of the future. Furthest along is Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, a walled community intended for 50,000 residents in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi, in which every building, streetlight and personal electric “pod” vehicle has been preplanned and preloaded with high-tech gear, largely to maximize energy efficiency. At Masdar, as well as New Songdo City in South Korea and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, real estate developers, global information-technology companies and governments are attempting to build urban centers from scratch that are filled with technologically enhanced infrastructure and services. The designers say their grand conceptions will determine how future cities will be built.
But as models, these top-down projects pale in comparison to the emergent form of intelligence that is bubbling up from millions of newly cyber-connected residents. Truly smart—and real—cities are not like an army regiment marching in lockstep to the commander’s orders; they are more like a shifting flock of birds or school of fish, in which individuals respond to subtle social and behavioral cues from their neighbors about which way to move forward. Although the mobs in Cairo and Tunis appeared unruly, their actions resulted from digital coordination of human activity on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands of people appeared in Tahrir Square in Cairo because text messages and tweets summoned them—reflecting an immensely powerful, democratic and organic alternative vision of the smart city.
Rather than focusing on the installation and control of network hardware, city governments, technology companies and their urban-planning advisers can exploit a more ground-up approach to creating even smarter cities in which people become the agents of change. With proper technical-support structures, the populace can tackle problems such as energy use, traffic congestion, health care and education more effectively than centralized dictates. And residents of wired cities can use their distributed intelligence to fashion new community activities, as well as a new kind of citizen activism.
Going beyond Urban Efficiency
Why are countries racing haphazardly to implement smart cities? Why is IBM forecasting a $10 billion market in this arena by 2015? What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One auto racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race.