I was in Southampton on Monday, giving a couple of guest lectures at the business school. One of them was on smart cities. As I prepared the talk, as so often happens, the idea at its heart evolved and gained some resolution.
It’s far from the first time I’ve spoken about smart cities, or their successor – what I call ‘living cities’. But what I realised in this iteration is the difference in how value is measured in the two models.
Smart cities have become, in many ways, an austerity-era phenomenon. The idea has been around a long time but only gained traction when the need for cities to save money became acute. And perhaps more importantly, when marketers in tech companies caught on to this fact. There is an overlay of environmental messaging, and that’s positive. But fundamentally, cities have bought into the smart agenda because it might offset some of the impact of a population both growing and ageing, and falling government spending.
Dig in to any smart city project and look at its metrics and you will find that most are about cutting energy, fuel, and water costs. All of these have secondary values of reducing carbon emissions, but that doesn’t usually justify the investment. Nor does any impact on the navigability of a city, or its air quality (though that might if health care costs were more closely tied to municipal spending).
In short, smart cities are an attempt to cost-optimise static assets.
The idea of the living city that I put forward a few years ago is an evolution of the smart city. You start with the same basic infrastructure: sensors and actuators, a network layer, storage and computing, analytics. But then you add a few more ingredients.
First, you add some artificial intelligence (really just machine learning). This allows you to optimise the assets you have, but more importantly to understand whether these are the right assets.
The system does this by drawing from a new set of sensors. Ones that track not only the environment, but its denizens. Combining intimate personal data about mood, health, travel, and expressed sentiment, the system can understand the effect its infrastructure has on people. Are they happy? Are they productive?
You might reasonably ask about the privacy aspects of this type of sensing. But if we could lower the barriers to expressing our frustrations, or our joy, at good and bad service, then wouldn’t we choose to? We’re already conditioned to rate everything from our taxi drivers, to our morning coffee, to our everyday purchases.
These sensors tell the city about the need for change. Robotics give it the capability to make changes, potentially with minimal human intervention.
The robotic elements are easiest to understand when you think of them at the scale of a building. Imagine a smart building that recognises when there is too much noise in a shared workspace. When it does, it doesn’t just tell someone, it reshapes the interior to create more private spaces and minimise noise travel. Imagine a smart building that realises that the entry and exit ways are poorly sized for peak times, and adapts them accordingly.
Giant 3D printers, new materials, modular construction techniques, and future energy systems all play into this idea of a much more flexible built environment.
This creates a new challenge though: how do we moderate the decisions of the AI? This is where a change in the building lifecycle comes in. Right now, construction and property operation is a very staged process with very little overlap between those stages. Once someone has completed their role in designing, or building a project, they tend not to be involved. I think we need to change the property business model to engage all of the parents of a project throughout its lifecycle – particularly the architects. Architects understand a building’s DNA and can steer the behaviours of the building’s AI in line with its original purpose and aesthetics.
All of these changes create a much more adaptable environment. One whose value can be measured in much richer terms than just the cost of operation. We can ask whether a building, or even a whole city, is delivering on productivity, health, even joy, and steer its evolution to better meet those needs.