Building Smarter Cities

By November 5, 20192019

To build smart cities we first need to understand the past. It is only by putting cities into an historical context and harvesting the smartness of ordinary people can we really begin to create cites that are better connected.

We talk about the future of work and the knowledge economy, acknowledging the paradigm shift that is taking place. Yet we tend to fall back on the lens of our existing day‐jobs when trying to visualise this future world. We imagine ourselves performing the same tasks but faster, more efficiently, more accurately.

The industrial revolution that lurched into motion some 200 years ago completely transformed what most people think of as work. Instead of hard physical labour, we are sitting at desks and shuffling paper, making telephone calls, attending meetings. The amount of time the average person spends in education has probably doubled. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a future world where most people are employed in work that we would see as education, research, culture or entertainment.

Instead of thinking about collecting data from the masses and employing smart tools so that experts can plan efficient cities, geared towards wellbeing. Perhaps we should be making those smart tools accessible to the general public. We have resources like Wikipedia and Open Street Maps, where knowledge and analysis is crowd sourced. More and more people are conducting their own research and sharing it on blogs or via YouTube channels.

Over the past few years I have been involved in collaborative ventures using BIM tools and processes to recreate historical buildings: firstly, the Bank of England, as it was 200 years ago; secondly Notre Dame de Paris as it was before the fire. These exercises in collective activity, learning by doing, have been incredibly insightful. If we want to understand our cities, to enrich them, surely we need to better foster a collective understanding of how cities have developed in different times and places.

For me, smart cities are places where people are engaged in learning activities. Electronic devices are not smart. The smartness comes in the way they interact with human brains. The seeds are there for all to see. People are constantly sharing images and telling stories. The mainstream media are no longer in charge of the narrative. This is bound to affect the mainstream professions sooner or later. Community planning is an idea which has been around for several decades now, but always on the sidelines. Most city planning is firmly in the hands of “experts”. But 30 years ago, encyclopedias were exclusively produced by experts. Today that model is archaic. Imagine city planning based on the Wikipedia model.

Perhaps it could start with local history groups, creating models of their neighbourhoods as they were 50 years ago, or 200, or 500. Gradually such groups could grow in size and capability, stimulate discussions and generate proposals. We all admire the medieval street patterns of cities like London, Barcelona, Katmandu: the richness and diversity, the sense of a surprise round every corner. These places were not planned in a top‐down manner. Uber does not work by having an expert telling every driver where to go.

The real power of smart systems lies in connecting human brains to each other, letting them tap into a network of information and interact with each other.

By Andy Milburn