Society / Technology

Smart City: All Brains, No Soul?

Colorful cityscape at night

image: sxc / a. glitch

Imagine you could build the city of the future, from scratch, right now.  What would it look like?  What would it do?

It’s not a hypothetical question.  According to this Salon article, software developer Plan IT intends to do exactly that: “Plan IT Valley” will be a new city located in northern Portugal, and is expected to be complete in 2015.  If you’re a regular reader of Cosmic Revolutions, you’ll know that I have a minor obsession with “smart” systems, the internet of things, and other innovations that can remove the friction from our daily lives.  When our devices and environments “talk” to one another, they can take care of things without our intervention, in some cases better and faster than we humans could ever hope to.

And that’s why I’m so intrigued by Plan IT Valley, which will incorporate over 100 million embedded networked sensors, constituting a sort of electronic nervous system for a sentient city.  In fact, the reason it’s being planned by a software company, of all things, is that the whole city will run on a specialized Urban Operating System, or UOS.

I do want to make the disclaimer that I’m not 100% sure this city is actually happening – the Salon article is a year out of date, and I can’t find any other references online.  But that’s almost beside the point.  Since this technology exists, and its eventual deployment is inevitable, it’s worth thinking through the implications.  Here’s a run-down of what would be great about living in a from-scratch, tech-forward smart city, along with a few arguments against it.

The City Would Be Awesome Because It’s…

Easier

One planned feature of Plan IT Valley is to have sensors embedded in each home’s plumbing, so that if a leak develops, the system can either fix it remotely or send in a plumber automatically.  Another feature would guide your car directly to an open parking space, so you don’t have to circle the lot like a vulture.

Safer

If a fire breaks out, the city system will not only alert the fire department and turn on the sprinklers, it will also re-route nearby traffic to clear the way for emergency vehicles, tell the firefighters who’s in the building and where, and alert nearby hospitals to prepare for incoming patients.

More Sustainable

The system, being aware of many things at once, can adjust electricity generation on the fly or shut down air conditioning units when no one’s home. With top-down control of traffic, it can make everyone’s commute more efficient, and even the operating system itself is designed to run on citizens’ computers while idle, meaning no energy-gobbling mainframes.

stream of taxis seen from above

Cities are complex and inherently unpredictable (image: flickr/ BJ Beggerly)

But the City Might Suck Because It’s…

Vulnerable

This is a common problem with any highly centralized system.  If the central operator, in PlanIT’s case the UOS software, were to shut down or make a mistake, the fallout could potentially affect everything in the entire city.  At the very least, a backup system would need to be in place, but a robust defense against hackers, software bugs, power failures and so on would also be highly essential.

Over-automated

Automation is nice, but it depends to a large extent on the programmers’ ability to predict what will be needed.  And as we all know, human beings can be fairly unpredictable, as can the future generally.  For example, suppose one neighborhood becomes popular, while another languishes – will the traffic-moderating algorithms be able to adjust?  And what if there’s some kind of problem 10 years down the road that no one could ever have predicted?

Invasive

The city’s features all depend on sensors, which to be effective need to be everywhere, including in your home.  The sustainability features mentioned above, for example, require the system to know whether you’re home or not, how often you drive your car, and which places you tend to frequent. While ultimately useful, this is also kind of creepy and could potentially be abused by an unscrupulous city manager or a hacker.

Soulless

This is the main argument brought up in the Salon article, and it’s one I take quite seriously.  It boils down to the fact that a city built from scratch has no history.  That means its residents have no personal investment in their neighborhoods, and no deep community networks to belong to (at least at first).  It also means that the city won’t have a distinct culture of its own.  All the buildings would have been built at the same time, by people with more or less the same vision.  Even the city’s layout would be an a priori assumption, rather than something that emerged naturally from the way people use the city.  In other words, the city would feel artificial.  Compare this with, say, Paris or Tokyo, which evolved organically in concert with their residents, and therefore feel unique and rich.

Best of Both Worlds?

In my opinion, the perfect city would have a balance of features. It would have organically evolved its own culture, architecture and communities, but it would incorporate some of the best features of the sentient city as well.  This unfortunately means a lot of retrofitting and redesign, which is both expensive and disruptive.  But it’s the only way to have our cake and eat it too.

Then again, who says every city will be the same?  There’s room enough in this world for a ground-up, super-advanced technology showcase of an urban center, plus an old-world tech-free city of stone and wood, and everything on the spectrum in between.  In fact, I think this particular scenario is the one most likely to be our actual future.  No one can say for sure, of course, but I’m excited to see what happens.

So what do you think?  Would you live in a smart city?  Why or why not?

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3 thoughts on “Smart City: All Brains, No Soul?

  1. re: a city w/o history would be a city w/o soul. Read a piece years ago with this great advice for travellers. When visiting a new town or city, find these places: the highest place (so you can see the whole), the oldest place, the library, the best bookstore, the best coffee shop, the easiest part of the city to get lost….

    Plan IT just needs to design these places into it…without it feeling like a theme park!

    • That’s a great list! I do love exploring new cities, and the highest place available is always first on the agenda. Gives you such a good sense of the city’s character and feeling.

  2. I love how this post made me dream up what I think cities will look like soon. But it also made me wonder about the more rural areas. What does automation mean for them? Will people move to areas of high/lower automation in addition to population density?

    Side note: I was at the Renaissance festival this weekend, and was amused to note that there were wifi hot spots.

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