Preventing Smart Cities from Becoming Dumb Cities

There is a global obsession with SmartCities forming, Frost & Sullivan predicting their global market value at $1.565tn by 2020 yet in many ways it’s still an ill-defined concept. The simple argument is what is the purpose and outcome of a SmartCity, is it health, wealth, knowledge? If it’s just efficiency for the machine then it misses the point of where we are going as a society. After much reading, thinking, speaking, discussing and observing in 2016 here are some key points I aim to raise to enliven the conversation of developing truly human centric smart cities:

Don’t be ambiguous, happiness is not attainable for a city.

Happiness is a subject too broad to attempt to build one model that fits all, happiness can change from street to street depending on sometimes your landscape views. “What makes people around here happy is keeping busy,” says local electrician Dean Turner. “They just need work. You don’t need charities spending all this money to tell you that.”. We need to elevate our plans above a concept of happiness and look for enrichment and opportunity as the core values of city-wide aims.

Focus on mental health.

Dr. Leana Wen highlights in her podcast interview with Ezra Klein, “the opposite of poverty is health (not wealth)”

Mental Health is the biggest elephant in the room of smart city and urbanisation. If efficiency of resources is what we want then we should look to tackle the “the annual costs of health and social care, dementia cost £10.5 billion, compared to £4.5 billion for cancer, £2.7 billion for stroke and £2.3 billion for CHD. After combining health and social care, informal care and productivity losses, dementia also had the highest annual cost at £23 billion, followed by cancer (£12 billion), CHD (£8 billion) and stroke (£5 billion).”

Develop social frameworks to enable people to have better cognitive flexibility in understanding and adapting with change, encouraging social diversity.

The rate of change being experienced right now is unprecedented. Technology is feeding rapid changes in economy but also in society. Business and demographics are changing and insecurities are rising. In environments where we feel threatened we retreat to what we know. Populism in 2016 won on the virtues of a "better time".

Arguably there hasn’t been a better time in history, for example we don’t have a black plague or a holocaust going on but times are no doubt more complex. We need to look at SmartCities becoming Conscious Cities in how they enable societal integration to accept change. The city of Medellin in Columbia is heralded as a shining example of how enabling better physical and digital connectivity and discourse amongst its inhabitants has been able to crawl out of the Pablo Escobar era into a culturally and economically progressive city in shorter times than it has for many post-industrial towns still struggling since the 1970s.

To not ignore the amounting evidence of the built environments impact on the brain, cognition and mental health.

Upcoming keynote speaker Colin Ellard at the Conscious Cities Conference II gives great write up science backed reasons for changes in streetscape design. With the direct ability on the built environment to effect mental health and cognition it is the responsibility of designers, architects, planners and developers to adopt new information and tools to not only build more effective real estate and systems, but to also building more resilient spaces and more sustainable spaces that are of value to humans in 50 years time as they are today.

Buildings and economies change, people don’t. Read George Orwell’s Why I Write and you’ll see that nothing has changed in 70 years. We must turn the built environment industry away from the concept of fixed assets but of liquid ones with multiple use and adaptability suiting the core human requirements of the 21st Century.

Focus on developing inclusive living systems encouraging better sharing of resources.

A #SmartCity or #ConsciousCity looks at how we might be able to combine resources better. For example, can the equity rich elderly people “sell-up” to live alongside key-workers in new bespoke high quality developments where in return for lower rents key workers help where possible, examples like this exist in Holland, so where are our tools for development on this topic?

Property Firm JLL highlighted in a market report that the “RICS believes up to 2.6 million homes could be released onto the market if older households chose to move into specialist housing”….Knight Frank go on to reference “Around 1% of the UK’s population aged 60 or over live in retirement communities, according to data from Housing LIN. This compares to 13% in Australia and New Zealand, and 17% in the US.” SmartCities should look at initiatives to combine current market problems and not just add apps. The younger generations are becoming dissatisfied with mega-cities, those who are looking for quality of life are moving to find it. Future cities need to adopt new smarter systems that keep people in situ not just focus on attracting new ones otherwise we may find our demographics shifted dangerously.

The economic opportunity is begging.

Put effectiveness for humans above efficiency of machines.

Enable Aaron Swartz’s vision by making information truly democratic and follow Egypt’s lead in designing an educated society by the Egyptian Knowledge Bank where what in the UK & USA is limited to the elite few Egypt has made accessible to all and democratic. Enable ground up development.

A smart city led government must realise that the old jobs are gone and to start training for the new ones.

Ask better the question 'How can a smart city self govern enabling better citizen living?'

Successful tech is always bottom up, the very principle reasons for the world wide web. Enabling better localism through technology will enable better policy making. Indy Johar and his team at Dark Matter Labs say “This politics of change isn’t about authority-as-administration but about all-inclusive activation of people as place agents — seeing citizens, corporates and civic society not as voters, complainers or volunteers but as true collaborators in achieving local outcomes — which means investing in growing the shared interest of citizens, and in becoming the physical and digital convening ground for these micro-massive movements.” . NESTA too join the conversation in “The rise and rise of UK city data analytics” detailing the impacts they’re making in enabling better care and social services through big data.

Focus on developing spaces, places, systems that encourage cognitive flexibility to encourage the next era of jobs to be created by innovation.

“Humans will continue to be useful workers, the argument goes, because of things like empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking.” If our future skills rely in this department then we must cater towards it and ask ourselves do the current concepts of buildings provide us with the social and neurological stimuli to enable this level of thinking. As Betsey Dougherty, co-founder of Dougherty + Dougherty Architects in California, an executive member of the pioneering Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (associated to our Conscious Cities movement) “A smart building should allow you to get better faster if it’s a hospital, learn more if it’s a school, be more creative if it’s an office. Of course, buildings will get generally smarter as cellphones do — that’s to be expected. But we have to raise the bar on the idea that a building is essentially a box.”

Understand the outputs required and build around them.

“We’re living our life depending on the spaces we’ve got rather than creating our space to fit our lives”, Architect Frank Mascia rightly says in the film “Minimalism

Professor Carlo Ratti of the MIT SENSEable City Lab is building a city from the sharing economy upwards because “We need to try out different things — that is important as architects and engineers — because it is how human society progresses”

Sidewalk Labs join in by Reimagining cities from the internet up and NOT on building more ‘garden cities’. Huge infrastructure projects are loved by central government due to almost guarantee on impact to GDP but fail to note that top-down economic policies are not working anymore. Rather than building a heavily criticised model surely more sense is in looking at the social and economic requirements more and building around them. Business, economy, and talent are flocking to cities due to their density and diversity, requirements for growth. Building more homes is not what’s needed, using data and a smart strategy to understand what types of spaces (home/work/play) are needed and build outwards from there.

Acknowledge that a utility based smart city does not answer the problems of citizens, knowledge, opportunity and connectivity do.

George Zarkadakis writes in his AI related piece the importance in future city/economy design to not “ignore humans’ fundamental need to feel needed, to be creative and productive, and to achieve status and acceptance in the eyes of their community”. The vast majority of domestic terrorism, fed by anxiety, isolation, paranoia, assimilation and secularism is fed by those with nothing to do, no purpose, the wasters of society who feel no value. Removing the need for humans further exacerbates a growing problem of insecurity by a purposeless life.

Realise that the Real Estate industry is no longer about property.

Simply, it is another point of connection enabling life in a connected world. Once asset owners realise how their assets play into lives or individuals, citizens and other infrastructure networks we will see a new asset class created. The 20th Century was the era real asset management, the 21st Century digital is about the digital asset management eco-system. With them come new market opportunities. Follow the customer, who want buildings and spaces to be like the other “on demand services that they have in their every day lives”. For further reading on this topic look no further than the regular posts by Antony Slumbers.

Realise that tech is not the answer but the enabler.

A human-centric city leads you to be able to use technology to connect people better, Tiffani Bell saw a humanitarian crisis develop in Detroit and did something about it.

Understand that AI will not predict human behaviour that is networked and nuanced.

If the scientific industry are only just identifying “exact” areas of the brain and advanced university tech labs only just creating memristor technology that has the ability to mimic the neuronal firing of the human brain then how we can use AI right now to predict human behaviour? The more we focus on predicting human behaviour the dumber we will become. Instead focus on incremental increases in probable outcomes for humans, and encourage diverse human behaviour. The brain is too magical, mysterious and powerful to predict right now. It won’t work, don’t think about it. Focus energies on how to enhance opportunity rather than predict activity, leave space for serendipity.

Be careful of data, if it’s the new oil, it can be as destructive.

A read of “Weapons of Math Destruction” will quickly highlight the perils of being over-deterministic with big data, shows its weaknesses, its lies, fallacies, its ability to manipulate and threaten democracy and increase inequality. The author, Cathy O’Neill, refers to instances when data was extrapolated and quickly removed from context, reapplied, narrowed, then expanded again and totally removed from the context in which the data point occurred, leading to significant errors and abuses of democracy. Relying on data to predict, determine and control human behaviour will cause all of the above to become greater problems.

If data is the new oil in the digital #SmartCity, what does the digital version of an oil spill look like, what’s the damage to the eco-system and how long will it take to recover?

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#SmartCities are an exciting movement. We are at the cusp of being able to evolve cities into their next stage, yet there is a focus on the “what” and not enough on the “why”.

Thank you,

Josh Artus, Real Estate Director for The Centric Lab

Josh ArtusBlog