Dawn of the Smart City? Perspectives From New York, Ahmedabad, São Paulo, and Beijing (Report Launch)June 19, 2014 By Schuyler Null
Rapid growth and environmental change are creating new challenges for urban areas around the world. By 2050, as many as 7 out of 10 people on Earth will live in cities, with the vast majority of growth occurring in today’s developing countries. [Video Below]
From climate change adaptation and crime prevention to the integration of new residents, much is being asked of municipal governments. At the same time, new technologies – from data collection and real-time monitoring to sophisticated “control centers” – are being developed that could transform urban decision-making and city management. Led by a cadre of information technology companies, the use of such technologies to help cities adapt to 21st-century challenges is called “smart cities.”
As part of a special collaboration between programs at the Wilson Center, we recently asked experts from New York, São Paulo, Beijing, and Ahmedabad about the ideas behind smart cities and the challenges their respective countries face.
Big Data vs. Big Brother
Some see smart cities as an urban paradigm shift equivalent to the spread of electricity in the 20th century. Cities not only produce much of the world’s wealth and innovation but a tremendous amount of information, which if harnessed could save money, time, and space, while also making people safer and more productive.Smart technologies could help every-day citizens be heard above the din of municipal politics and bureaucracy
IBM, Cisco, Siemens, and other large companies see applications for their business in providing computer networks, distributed sensors, and data analytics to expand the tools of city planners and ease growing pressures on urban infrastructure.
Smart technologies could also help every-day citizens be heard above the din of municipal politics and bureaucracy by creating more opportunities for participation and making city processes more transparent and responsive. If governments make the data they collect widely available, anyone could use it to create innovative solutions to complex problems.
Still, the smart city is a nascent idea. For every promise of more efficient transit systems there are detractors who warn of the dangers of linking, automating, and ceding control to private companies or an authoritarian government. There are also fears that technocratic solutions will be crippled if they do not account for the realities of local politics; too much focus on efficiency will lead to sterile, stifling environments; and the expense and upkeep of such systems will further divide cities along class lines.
The actual application of smart city solutions over the next few decades will be crucial.
In this short collection of essays, we hear how smart city concepts are being incorporated in four countries experiencing profound demographic, environmental, and economic transformations. A common theme is that technology alone will not solve the biggest problems facing urban areas.
In São Paulo, where the number of people living in favelas has increased from 1 percent of the population in the 1970s to 16 percent today, Philip Yang and Emilia Patiño Anaya of URBEM warn that new technological tools, like the urban control center of neighboring Rio, risk becoming “accessories to the chaos” if spatial and social imbalances are not addressed.
“We may delegate decisions to increasingly aware and responsive technology, but we should never abdicate,” writes Alexandros Washburn of the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Technology may, however, grease the wheels of city systems, creating space for local politics to function better.“We may delegate decisions to increasingly aware and responsive technology, but we should never abdicate”
In New York, the land use review process slows down preparation for climate change and alienates many residents, says Washburn. It could be sped up and made much more engaging if computer modeling were better incorporated.
Real-time tracking of buses and trains may seem simple but is incredibly important in India, writes Dhamodaran Ramakrishnan of IBM India/South Asia – in five of India’s megacities, as much as a third of the urban road space is taken up by illegal parking.
And besides producing food and reducing air pollution, urban agriculture in China could help spread awareness about environmental and food issues, explains Jianming Cai of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. One-fifth of China’s arable land is contaminated, three-quarters of urban surface water is unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and several public health crises have rocked the country in recent years.
These are problems that not only affect the United States, India, Brazil, and China but cities around the world at all levels of development.
Smart city technologies, like any other technology, are tools, not panaceas for every political and social challenge. But they are powerful tools that offer the potential for major improvements in urban living.
This report is a production of the Brazil Institute, China Environment Forum, Environmental Change and Security Program, and Urban Sustainability Laboratory.
Sources: The Economist, The Guardian, The New York Times, O Globo, The World Bank, World Health Organization.
Photo Credit: Escalators in São Paulo, courtesy of flickr user Leo Eloy.