Greg Lindsay's Blog

January 29, 2018  |  permalink

“We’re still waiting for a smart city; it hasn’t been created yet.”


Thailand’s Property Report profiled me on the subject of smart cities in Asia. To their credit, they don’t attempt to whitewash the inherent flaws in so-called smart cities and give more than a fair hearing to my own ideas of what a smart city should be. I’ve republished the piece below.

Humankind will make the great crossing from the countryside to urban centres in coming decades. Many will consider themselves lucky to make the move to a so-called smart city.

The notion of living in smart cities has jumped from the drawing board to reality over the last few years. Urban planners are excited about the prospect of urbanites becoming more interconnected than they already are, living in communities packed with sensors and set aside as test labs for the Internet of Everything while digitisation streamlines the very way they lead lives.

Smart cities trigger complex discussions fraught with a myriad of issues ranging from infrastructure to inclusivity. No one could pin down what exactly a smart city is, partly because the concept is so open to interpretation — and because it essentially does not exist yet.

The need for one hangs in the air. As metropolises bloat with over-populace, spewing carbon into the atmosphere and suffering from vestigial inefficiencies of the last century, urban planners and technocrats have agreed that redefining the very fabric of a city is of the essence.

“You need a smart city because, ultimately, there are ways we can enhance the fundamental nature of the city,” said Greg Lindsay of the New Cities Foundation. “We can use technology to make cities better versions of themselves if it’s all about connecting people and systems that were otherwise unconnected, and yet giving people the agency to change them and to use them.”

As leader of the nonprofit’s Connected Mobility Initiative, Lindsay has borne witness to the rise and fall of smart city initiatives around the world. In his 2011 book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, Lindsay studied the critical intersections between smart infrastructure and smart cities.

“It was really about air travel. It was what really invented the modern world,” he argued. “It allowed people to act on a global scale within the span of a day or two. Sooner or later, it seemed inevitable that, as with all transportation technology, people would build cities around it.”

Early on, the city of Songdo in South Korea testified to the transformative effects an airport could have on adjacent areas. Built on a 600-hectare reclaimed land parcel outside Seoul, Songdo thrived on its direct link, by way of a seven-mile bridge, to Incheon International Airport, in the same way outlying islands in Hong Kong benefited from the USD20-billion transfer of its old airport in the 2000s.

Lindsay has followed the plight of Songdo in its ultimately disappointing bid to become the world’s first smart city. “The general perception of Songdo after an incredible hype cycle has now descended down into this trough of disillusionment,” he said.

Songdo has failed to measure up to the titanic expectations of being “first.” The USD-40 billion project has made a comfortable home for as many as 100,000, but the figure represents less than half of its capacity, and many of the heralded smarts have yet to pass.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere we could actually point to and say, ‘This is what a smart city is,’” Lindsay said. “We’re still waiting for the best example. It hasn’t been created yet.”

Still, it is likely that a real smart city will burst forth in Asia first, on the rock-solid foundation of an existing, evolving city. Singapore, in Lindsay’s opinion, seems to be leading the way, raising the bar when it comes to giving citizens opportunities to engage directly with government. As does Dubai: housing authorities in the emirate made headlines late last year when they announced lavish investments in blockchain technology, cryptocurrency payments, and drone technology.

While all these advancements tickle futurists, the ‘holy grail’ of smart cities would be to be able to distribute planning decisions to each and every citizen, Lindsay explained. This then raises the question as to whether smart cities can ever be inclusive by their very nature. Critics of the movement lament that smart cities only benefit certain segments of the body politic; somebody somewhere is always left behind in the race toward becoming Smart.

“You can’t run a fully participatory digital democracy because you can’t assume that everyone has a smartphone,” Lindsay said. “It’s very easy to be incredibly innovative if you’re willing to write off portions of the population.”

The fundamentals of smartening an existing city sooner or later require investing in leading-edge technology, an act anathema to poorer economies. Smart technology, in many ways, is designed to dovetail easily with societies that have reached higher rungs of advancement and connectivity.

Before applying smart tech at the grassroots level, an urban planner must engage first with the social context of a city and understand issues endemic to it. Alongside governments, property developers must be aware of their mandate to leverage technology and refine experiences for people in their localities.

“It’s just a question of how do you layer value and add new uses on top of the already great places we’re developing,” said Lindsay.

Smart cities may have that rarefied feel with thorny barriers to entry but in 2016, the world gained a glimpse of the infinite possibilities the majority could have in a smart city. Pokemon Go, a gaming app which conflates the popular ’90s cartoon characters with the ultra-modern trappings of augmented reality, exploded across mobile screens worldwide. It gave people a simulacrum of connectivity that cuts across multiple tiers of the economic situation.

“For a brief, blinding moment it was the most successful smart city app ever developed,” Lindsay said. “It was taking groups of strangers, of all backgrounds and ethnicities, on city street corners and making them stop and take selfies together. It was a flash in the pan, but it really points to what we can do from the concept of games and how these kinds of things to really unlock the value of cities.”

So what will cities of the future look like? They will not spring out of nowhere like Songdo for certain, he suggested. “The cities that we have and that we know and love are the result of decades, centuries, thousands of years of many, many hands building and rebuilding spaces that people love at a visceral level.

“And there is nothing that a single developer or technology can do in a single cycle that can really replicate that.”

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy of its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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