At The Heart of it All: Smart Cities and our Human Potentials

At the heart of this think piece is a reminder to myself. I attended an event recently on smart city initiatives. The event gave me pause to consider the scope of imagination that we employ for these occasions — it reminded me that we must not be afraid of dreaming big. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek made an interesting observation on the idea of the constraints we sometimes put on our imagination — consider for a moment that an asteroid is on its way to smash into the side of our world. We can dream up all sorts of ingenious solutions to deflect it, we have libraries of science fiction novels as well as astrophysics and engineering papers that can help us determine and implement a plan of staggering potential that can do its best to deflect the rock and save the world. And yet when it comes to imagining new ways of providing health coverage to the community or considering slight tweaks to environmental policies, very often we just cannot do it, we cannot dream big enough to see an alternative for these present day challenges. On one level we might say, well sure, this is nothing more than the difference between a desperate situation provided full control over extreme resources to achieve a big and critical goal like knocking an asteroid off course, versus the realities of policy and process that must be mediated in slow, strategic ways in order to make incremental changes to legislation over time. I argue however that we must not take our eyes off the potentials that can be achieved by acknowledging the incoming asteroid. We must not forget how to dream big in order to solve critical challenges.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘smart city’? You might think of what many councils around the world are implementing — an internet of things that use data to detect patterns of civic and consumer engagement in our cities, that use data to provide access to public transport and parking options, and that might use data for public art installations, such as illuminating LEDs on a map to show where a lot of energy is being used, for example. A smart city might have wi-fi coverage that spans the region to encourage data sharing between citizens and the internet of things, there might be censors in bins to help notify when garbage should be collected, as well as digital screens that display daily information such as weather and upcoming events. Now, in education we sometimes talk about the SAMR model with regards to the implementation of technology — are we using technology to simply Substitute a traditional, offline way of working for a newer digital method, or are we creating an Augmented approach that develops basic substitution to a more sophisticated level, or are we making significant Modifications to how we implement technology in the learning process, or, at the end of the spectrum, are we Redefining how we imagine the interplay between technology and other ways of engaging students in the classroom. Given the above examples of smart city initiatives that are being designed and implemented in some cities, where on the SAMR model might we align those? Using data to detect patterns of consumer behaviour might help to Augment the way that businesses market their wares or employ staff for particular times of the week, and providing app based public transport notifications might be a Substitute for traditional paper based timetables, but how we are working on Redefining the possibilities of the city? What big dreams do we have? Are our big dreams really about creating sensors to detect when a garbage needs to be emptied, or do we have perhaps a greater capacity for human ingenuity than this?

How might Redefining the possibilities of the city engage with needs relating to, say, accessibility? Or providing healthy and playful options for children, families, everybody, to access and use public spaces in ways that don’t always lead to consumerist outcomes? Do we still need roads in our cities? Why? How might apps enhance liveability in authentic and meaningful ways, rather than replicate travel brochures? How do we address needs relating to homelessness and affordability of living and mental health and ageing needs and the gambit of other human, all too human, considerations? This is a civic reminder to myself that these are the asteroids we need to help us dream big again. And this line of thinking should in no way should be restricted to the current topic of smart cities, of course — at the heart of it all, all startups and entrepreneurial avenues would do well to consider the asteroid. Reflect on what Silicon Valley billionaire Chamath Palihap­itiya has said in relation to what entrepreneurs should do in relation to taking on challenges relating to education and quality of life and the environment and the state of our cities — “the gnarlier, the better…the more nuanced, the longer term, the more in the muck, the better”. I completely agree — this is what I want to see in our Smart Cities, the full potential of our intelligence put towards gnarly, messy, asteroid fuelled challenges so we can achieve big, important goals that raise our humanity and perhaps give us measure to consider our cities not necessarily as being Smart but, rather, as being Kind. Bring on the Kind Cities.

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Craig Smith

Project Manager, Autism Educator, Learning Designer, Sound Artist, Author + Creator.