Smart cities and wealth creation

Rick Robinson wrote a really interesting article on the huge differences in life expectancy between the wealthiest and poorest areas of a city, and how the move to Smart Cities is trying to combat that. From Death, life, and place in great digital cities:

At the heart of the Smarter Cities movement is the belief that the use of engineering and IT technologies, including social media and information marketplaces, can create more efficient and resilient city systems. Might that idea offer a way to address the challenges of supporting wealth creation in cities at a sustainable rate of resource usage; and of providing city services to enable wellbeing, social mobility and economic growth at a reduced level of cost?

Rick goes on to explain some counter-intuitive dangers of this approach, and concludes:

We are opening Pandora’s box. These tremendously powerful technologies could indeed create more efficient, resilient city systems. But unless they are applied with real care, they could exacerbate our challenges. If they act simply to speed up transactions and the consumption of resources in city systems, then they will add to the damage that has already been done to urban environments, and that is one of the causes of the social inequality and differences in life expectancy that cities are seeking to address.

It’s a long, dense article, but it provides a much-needed realistic view of the power of technology to transform cities and the people who live there. The article also taught me this really good principle of urbanism:

Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings.

That immediately jumped out at me as a good principle in software development as well: Consider user needs before applications; consider applications before individual pages.

On the topic of Smart Cities, also see Smart cities and smart citizens, a very interesting write-up about this year’s FutureEverything summit. It makes a similar point about the importance of life over buildings:

Perhaps part of the problem in current dialogues around smart cities is the failure to understand what a city actually is. The smart city vision has tended to focus on buildings and infrastructure or traffic management and how technology can increase efficiency. Catherine Mulligan of Imperial College London says the reverential tones with which some smart-city speculators talk about technology is worrying: “They say these systems and computers can now make better decisions than human beings. But if you take the human beings out, it’s just a bunch of buildings talking to each other… and that’s not a city. The city is what it is because of the people.”