Thoughts on smart cities
At the University of British Columbia, Dr. Martino Tran in the School of Community and Regional Planning introduced me to the concept of smart cities and challenged many notions I held about them. From exploring the use of data to improve operational efficiency of a city to questioning the very purpose of the former and working in a team to develop an online platform to tackle loneliness in the City of Vancouver, I have learnt immensely about where the world is moving when it comes to the confluence of technology and urbanisation and what that means for the future of humanity.
As an International Economics concentrator, I was taught that market prefers efficiency, that it is the thought basis of why trade should be promoted to leverage comparative advantage across nations and that GDP, despite its numerous flaws, still works as a measure of growth. The first few lectures PLAN 341 began to challenge many of these conceptualisations I had deeply held.
Before critically engaging with the idea of smart cities, I defined a smart city as — “a major economic hub that prioritises the inclusivity and efficiency of its residents by finding the correct balance between technological and social interventions”.
I eventually realised that finding that ‘correct balance’ is an extremely complex exercise that requires obtaining contextual understanding, consultation with multiple stakeholders, and a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to even begin to understand the issue at hand. Learning about how drivers of population change such as declining fertility due to social mobility and declining mortality due to advances in medicine have allowed me to challenge my own view of the world. It has also allowed me to holistically make sense of the causes leading to rapid urbanization around the world and how cities today have evolved to become “modern engines that power society” as Martino put it.
Personally, my fascination has been with the confluence of technology with the political considerations around smart cities. More specifically, my curiosity has been with how city governance will be impacted as a consequence of increased technological integration in our cities. I have come to the understanding that the current approaches to smart cities, especially in the developed world, are dominated by competition among technologies rather than competition among viable solutions. When this happens, it often leads decision-makers to not question the current policy frameworks for city planning and we end up designing cities that benefit a few. Take for example autonomous vehicles. The technology which was supposed to be a blessing for physically disabled ended up being a corporate battle between LIDAR sensors and RADAR sensors leading to private entities making decisions about public spaces without giving much weight to the ethical considerations.
When policies start allowing for the excitement around innovations to supersede the considerations of how humans want to (or in some cases have to) interact with them, it leads to some serious concerns around equity both locally and internationally. We already observe countries in the Southern hemisphere of the planet such as India, which are gradually making the move from resource extracting economies to knowledge economies, opting to invest in building master-planned cities that replicate the ideas, models and design practices of the west without much concern for native need assessment. While this is not to say that the west should be held responsible for guiding planning for the developing world, countries jumping on the smart cities bandwagon have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of western technology pioneers and to leverage the international trends to guide domestic smart city planning rather than letting them dictate their approach.
On this end, Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction talks about how the pursuit of achieving the correct balance for one group could very well be detrimental for another group. Using real-world case studies that highlight how the use of big data to make day to day decisions can often go wrong, her book is an essential reminder to not equate smart with efficient.
To rectify this, my own view is that cities must reevaluate their vision of a better tomorrow to accommodate the needs and wants of its own citizens and clearly define ‘smartness’ and ‘happiness’ locally instead of blindly striving to improve life efficiency. To do so, city-level governance can benefit from the current advances in technology by first and foremost using it to engage better with its citizens. Exploring and investing in ways to use technology to communicate the priorities and issues at hand to citizens is equally important, if not more, as is collecting data and trying to make sense of it.
So far, I have realised that technology, at least in the political realm, is always useful to the point where it is used as a guide for democratic processes rather than as a replacement. Issues surrounding loss of jobs, the insurance of lives, the consequences for the justice system and that of privacy often come under the purview of public institutions. As such, cities need to shift their approach that prioritise both the outcome and the process which are equitable, which benefit many instead of a few, and an approach to governance that ensures accessibility and sustainability across the spectrum of social classes in a given society.