The drive to make cities smarter is potentially pleasing to several groups: Vendors sell a lot of what they make, consumers’ lives get a bit better, and the environment gets a bit cleaner and more energy efficient. More follow-on positive effects are possible, too. Like other big ideas, smart cities are a series of incremental advances, each of which improves the monstrously inefficient way in which cities run and use resources.
This is not news to vendors. Microsoft, despite its struggles adjusting to the post-PC era, has bundles of cash and influence. Smart cities is one area in which it is investing. This week, the company unveiled CityNext project. InformationWeek says that the project will use big data and the cloud to drive civic efficiency. The first cities involved are Barcelona; Zhengzhou and Hainan Province in China; Auckland; Buenos Aires; Hamburg; Manchester, UK; Moscow and Philadelphia.
Microsoft is not the only player, of course. Forbes contributor Anna Secino, in a commentary about smart cities and personal security, mentioned that Dallas and Montpellier, France recently have released statements concerning their smart futures.
The bottom line is that along with all the benefits, there is a lot to think about in terms of protecting people and their property. A mundane example: If energy usage is constantly monitored in a home as a way to gain efficiency, criminals gaining access to that data can identify burglary targets by assessing when the family is away on vacation.
A major concern with regards to smart cities is figuring out who, exactly, is in charge of all this data collection? The government? The tech companies? As a city strives towards streamlined convergence, how does it avoid creating an especially unscrupulous monopoly? “It is important to note that new technologies have additional potential to make communities smarter by combining sets of data and making them available not only to immediate decision makers but to a much wider network of officials and agencies so that they can make more informed decisions,” Kanter and Litow write.
Smart city initiatives are getting as much attention in Europe as in North America. The telecommunications company Orange has laid out its plans for making cities across France more efficient. The ideas are wide ranging and comprehensive and, of course, deeply embedded in communication technology. The last paragraph gives a flavor of how pervasive smart cities can be:
Finally, it hopes to encourage ‘smart building’ programmes by supporting the gradual migration towards the computerisation of buildings for business use, and offering services such as a personalised and simplified visitor reception, unique access control thanks to NFC, real time management of energy consumption, and dynamic displays of enriched communications.
In some cases, smart cities can even be used to reduce the isolation that sometimes is a price of urban living and our deep reliance on technology. One such project is an innovative and offbeat effort in Bristol, England, in which people use SMS repair codes on things such as mailboxes and lamp posts to answer questions. These answers are available to other visitors to that object. Slowly, people learn about each other and their cities.
The concept of smart cities is a big and, for lack of a better term, a smart one. It is incrementally unfolding around us and holds the potential for great savings in the environment. It also is fraught with dangers and threats.