First came “smart growth,” the planning and land development antidote to suburban sprawl. Then came “smart buildings,” with digital technology and the “Internet of Things” enabling automated monitoring and control of building performance and systems.
Now we are aiming for “smart cities,” presumably inhabited and governed by “smart citizens.”
Science-fiction movies have long imagined smart cities, usually in a dystopian future with government monitoring, controlling and intervening anywhere at will. TV crime dramas routinely show the CIA, the police or some sinister organization tracking and spying on people through use of satellite, cellphone or closed-circuit video networks.
Yet envisioning real-world smart cities is not pie in the sky. Monitoring remotely via the Internet or telecommunication networks is already a reality.
Sensors in my car send signals to the car manufacturer and dealer about my car’s main performance parameters, and I receive a regular report by email. Utility companies now measure and send bills for electricity, gas and water without deploying meter readers.
Apps on mobile devices enable users to navigate and check traffic conditions, as well as weather; to find gas stations, electric car-charging stations or restaurants; to locate open parking spaces; and to rent a bicycle or hire a car. You can find furnished apartments for rent or sale, emergency rooms and even job openings.
But know that your smartphone makes it possible for you to be followed and found.
Thus, creating a smart city is a matter of scale and augmented connectivity. It entails more comprehensively managing city services and resources by monitoring the complex, dynamic web of activity and interactions involving city residents, workers, infrastructure, buildings, vehicles and other urban elements.
Smart-city goals include increasing communication and flow of information; conserving energy and cutting carbon emissions; reducing waste; facilitating mobility and multi-modal travel; enhancing policing and public safety; distributing utilities — electricity, water, natural gas — fairly and reliably; improving repair and maintenance of infrastructure; delivering adequate health care; providing affordable housing; and boosting productivity, job opportunities and economic well-being.
Effectively managing a city to achieve these goals requires a citywide, interconnected system with real-time data gathering, processing and reporting capabilities. But equally important, it depends on having effective monitoring and decision-making intelligence, both human and artificial.
Tens of thousands of sensors throughout the city would continuously photograph, count or measure. They would collect and transmit information about real-time conditions. Thus, attentive personnel would know at every moment how city systems and services are performing, in turn enabling problems to be quickly identified and addressed as they arise.
All city government agencies would be interconnected, including schools, libraries, police, first responders, hospitals and clinics. Transit system operators, transit vehicles and utility providers would be part of the sensory network. Consider all the Metrorail deficiencies that would have been detected with a state-of-the-art monitoring system.
Pharmacies and food stores, retailers and regional wholesalers could be interconnected and monitored to help keep track of inventories of goods; avoid shortages, oversupplies or misallocation of goods; and enable goods to be more efficiently and quickly distributed in response to varying levels and locations of supply and demand. Businesses, service professions, nonprofit groups and trade organizations could be part of the network.
Imagine a smart city where you ride in a self-driving car or transit vehicle stopping and waiting less often at intersections. Traffic signals could be continuously controlled and synchronized to optimize traffic flow based on real-time vehicular volume, dominant directions of travel and even pedestrian activity and movement.
Microclimates and other local conditions of the natural environment would be continually knowable year-round. In winter, when deciduous trees are leafless, cameras on utility poles or overhead cables could detect potholes as soon as they appear. Some day, thanks to robotic technology, automated repair vehicles could be immediately dispatched to fill potholes. Tens of millions of automobile repair dollars would be saved.
Public officials and city planners would have timely and more accurate data on which to base policies and plans. A smart city’s sensory network could yield up-to-the-minute information about demographics, economic and business trends, housing, retail patterns, recreation facilities, cultural resources and infrastructure conditions.
Making a city really smart requires really smart individuals — and supercomputers — to analyze sensory inputs and decide what to do. Knowing what’s happening is not enough. Decision-makers must know how to respond to unanticipated problems and constantly changing conditions, especially if financial and human resources are limited.
Privacy is, of course, a concern. “Big Brother” comes to mind when contemplating the prospect of a smart city, where so much is observed, reported and available to authorities as well as your neighbors. But a lot of what should remain private is already made public. And who needs Big Brother when we’ve got Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?
A smart city promises not to compromise privacy but, rather, to become a better-functioning, more livable city.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).