Solving Cities

The sentient city: who controls smart technology?

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Cities harness technology to control everything from traffic to city repairs to disease. But who should control the technology?

Cities are like living, breathing, growing beasts. The "smart city" is like a living, breathing, growing, conscious beast - one we train to know what we need before we realize it ourselves.

But who is doing the training? As cities become increasingly automated, who is controlling the systems 'maximizing cost and efficiency'?

Will Doig says the smart-city movement is at a crucial crossroads. One path leads to a top-down model, one we see in the "all-in" attitude of companies such as IBM and Cisco. These top of the top companies are putting forward designs that "supposedly do everything from end traffic jams to prevent disease outbreaks to eliminate litter," Doig writes.

IBM Chairman Samuel J. Palmisano at the 2010 SmarterCities forum in Shanghai said, “Almost anything — any person, any object, any process or any service, for any organization, large or small — can become digitally aware and networked.

Think about the prospect of a trillion connected and instrumented things —cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines …”

Doig warns that "the goal of these companies is not just to participate in the evolution of smart cities, but to connect and control virtually everything with massive operating systems that will run these cities in their entirety."

But to be the architect of these massive systems means you own them. Yes the government approves the concept and may oversea funds, but ultimately the makers own the markets - and they own them for a very long time.

So what does it mean to approach smart city thinking from the roots up?

“I always go back to the fundamental question of what cities are for, and what they do for us for free if we let them,” Doig quotes Adam Greenfield, managing director of Urban Scale, an urban-technology consultancy. “I go back to a book I read called ‘The Uses of Disorder,’ which suggests that cities are about maximizing interface between you and others. You’re connected to a variety of people and providing the city itself with information and insights.”

Yes, tapping into the citizenry could be viewed as a way for government to slack off. But there are examples of how powerful - or simply clever - urban interfaces can be. SeeClickFix is an online platform inviting people to track problems in local infrastructure. People can "Like" the reports and signal to city administrators which issues to prioritize. In Seattle 500 residents clipped electronic trackers onto pieces of garbage. The garbage told the story of local sanitation - inefficiencies and all.

"Which of these futures should smart cities shoot for — the bottom-up model or the top-down version?" Doig asks.

Trash | Track in Seattle:

[via Will Doig at Salon.com]

Images: Creative Commons; Benjamin Wheelock

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure