The emergence of smart cities

  • Smart cities improve the lives of their residents
  • But they shouldn’t be elite enclaves that exclude the poor and less tech-savvy

The emergence of smart citiesWE live in a ‘smart’ era where smartphones, smartwatches and even smart homes are a reality.
 
But what about smart cities? That phrase has been bandied about for some time now. But has its time come and what are the implications on society?

As with all the other ‘smart’ objects, there is no precise definition of what constitutes a smart city. Anthony Townsend, author of the book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, says “smart cities can adapt on the fly, by pulling readings from vast arrays of sensors, feeding that data into software that can see the big picture, and taking action.”

That’s a pretty accurate description. But what’s important is the end results, which are cities that are closely monitored and controlled so as to improve traffic, lessen energy consumption, and make public amenities more accessible to the disabled, among other things.
 
In other words, smart cities improve the lives of their residents.

Imagine smart traffic lights that can detect traffic flow and make adjustments accordingly. Or street lights that get brighter as a visually impaired person approaches or street signs that can announce their location out loud.
 
One of the best examples of a smart city is Glasgow, which had won £24 million (US$38 million) in government funding in 2013 to set up the Future City Glasgow programme (pic below), a showcase of the Internet of Things, where everyday objects can talk to one another to offer better services.

The emergence of smart cities

There are sensors attached to street lights and outdoor furniture to measure footfall, noise levels and air pollution (such data will be used to prioritize delivery of services). There’s also intelligent street lighting which will switch off automatically when no one is around. An extensive CCTV network around the city monitors traffic and street lighting as well as crime.

But Glasgow is not alone. New York City’s Hudson Yards neighbourhood, currently in Phase 1 of its development, will track data on air quality, pedestrian traffic, energy demand, and the activity levels of workers and residents.
 
And in Songdo, South Korea, sensors track roads, water, waste and electricity. Buildings have computerised access and automatic climate controls.

Actually, over here in Cyberjaya, we have many of the elements of a smart city as well. Many of the buildings located here are certified Green Buildings, there is citywide free WiFi coverage, eco-friendly ride sharing that involve hybrid vehicles, bus shelters equipped with solar panels and LED lighting, among other things.
 
Cyberjaya is also currently working on introducing other smart city features which include – but is not limited to – smart parking, smart traffic lights, and city-wide applications to enhance liveability in the rising tech city.

Of course a smart city is not just about hardware. You can have the most sophisticated infrastructure in place but if it’s not populated with the right type of workforce, it wouldn’t really be a smart city, would it?
 
In other words, smart cities need smart people who are digital-savvy and constantly connected to the Internet via their handheld devices.

That however naturally raises the question of whether smart cities will be so elitist that they keep out those who are poor and less tech-savvy. The cost alone of living in a smart city might result in them becoming elite enclaves.

In a recent conference on smart cities in Mumbai, economist Laveesh Bhandari described smart cities as “special enclaves” that would use high prices and strict enforcement to prevent poor people from enjoying the privileges of the city’s advanced infrastructure.
 
“This is the natural way of things for if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure,” he said.

He later explained that he was critical of such a situation. “I am describing the unfeasibility and undesirability of a thoughtless smart-city vision,” he said.
 
“When you invest so much without thinking about services and low-cost housing and governance, then you will end up creating enclaves that keep out the poor.”

There are other issues to consider. With so many sensors everywhere and constant monitoring and collecting of data, it’s only natural to be concerned about privacy issues.
 
The emergence of smart citiesThe last thing we want is a ‘Big Brother’ situation where all our movements are tracked.

Then, there is also the security issue. Smart traffic lights, smart meters, and so on are all vulnerable to hackers. Imagine the chaos someone could ignite if they manage to hack into traffic control sensors throughout the city.

The notion of smart cities is an appealing one but it’s not without its potential drawbacks, as highlighted above.
 
But overall, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and it is the direction all major cities should evolve towards.
 
Furthermore, features found in smart cities will in time no longer be viewed as novel or unique but commonplace, as the smart city concept becomes prevalent.
 
Nowadays, nobody really refers to their phone as a ‘smartphone’ anymore, do they? In time, the same would probably apply to smart watches, smart homes and yes, smart cities.
 
Faris Yahaya is the managing director of Cyberview Sdn Bhd, the ‘Tech Hub Enabler’ that empowers tech community through investor relation services, industry development initiatives and technology hub development and management services.
 
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