Furthermore, although landmark buildings shape our historical understanding of many metropolises, in reality most of the physical stuff in cities was built by everyday people. City building was highly democratized, decentralized, free-flowing and adaptive, just like its social and economic life—a rich tapestry of communal architecture whose design achievements were the result of collective effort rather than celebrity “starchitects.”
This organic growth of classical cities holds several lessons for future smart cities. First, by imposing a preordained design, centralized planners often fail to create a city that is tailored to inhabitants’ needs, that reflects their culture or that creates the rich mix of activities that distinguishes great places. Centralized plans also make many assumptions about what people want, causing such plans to be brittle in the face of change. So many “smart home” projects have failed over the past few decades precisely because designers made the wrong assumptions about how people would want to integrate technologies into their daily lives and did not build in the capacity to adapt to unforeseen situations.
Second, top-down visions ignore the enormous innovative potential of grass-roots efforts. We have all witnessed how the decentralization of design transformed the World Wide Web into a fascinating milieu for social interaction. By providing finished solutions rather than new raw materials for building the physical and social fabric of smarter cities, top-down designs rob themselves of any capability to invent new ideas for how to make cities better. If we compare the bounty of ideas that have come from city-sponsored app contests such as New York City’s BigApps challenges with the vague promises for how high-definition videoconferencing will be used in New Songdo City, it is clear that the biggest innovations will come from the bottom.
Finally, a focus solely on efficiency ignores fundamental civic goals such as social cohesion, quality of life, democracy and the rule of law. Improving sociability through technology, however, does target these needs, while also unlocking new approaches to efficiency. For example, the app Dopplr allows users to calculate and share the carbon footprint of their travel, which may inspire more sustainable behavior.
Building from the Bottom-Up
If we focus on sociability as the starting point for design and tapping citizens as the source of innovation, how do we go about crafting a smarter city?
An ideal beginning is to leverage the growing array of smart personal devices we all wield and recruit people as the sensors of a city rather than relying only on formal systems embedded into infrastructure. The traffic function on Google Maps is a good example. Instead of building a costly network of dedicated vehicle sensors along roadways, Google constantly polls a large network of anonymous volunteers whose mobile devices report their up-to-the-minute status, which reveals where traffic is flowing, slowed or stopped. The information is delivered to drivers via mobile mapping applications in various ways—as colored overlays indicating traffic speeds, as estimated driving times that account for delays or as a factor in determining alternative routes. These handy data allow users to see the circulatory network of the city in real time and to understand the constantly changing cost in time of getting from point A to point B. Although Google is certainly not a grassroots platform, this example shows how peer-to-peer sharing of sensory data can have a huge impact in helping to manage urban infrastructure. This scenario also shows how smart cities can be both sociable and more efficient without imposing order from above; you choose the best route based on your peers’ observations instead of being directed by traffic engineers.
Google’s traffic app leverages a large base of existing consumer devices. But bottom-up approaches to sensing can also provide rapid, cheap deployment of new kinds of sensors that measure and record data about people’s activities, movements, surroundings and health. As recently as 2009, Paris had fewer than a dozen ozone-monitoring stations. To greatly expand this official data stream, the Green Watch project, overseen by Internet think tank Fing, distributed 200 smart devices to Parisians. The devices sensed ozone and noise levels as their wearers went about their daily lives, and the ongoing measurements were shared publicly through the Citypulse mapping engine. In the first trial more than 130,000 measurements were taken in a single city district. The experiment showed how a grassroots sensing network could be deployed almost in an instant—at dramatically lower cost than expanding the city’s archaic fixed stations. The project also showed that citizens could become deeply engaged in environmental monitoring and regulation. Ultimately, sensors for grassroots networks will be built into everyday objects: phones, vehicles and clothing.