I talk a lot about the idea of a ‘living city’. But what’s the difference between that and a ‘smart city’?
Well, that’s hard to say, since the term ‘smart city’ means different things to different people. There is something close to a standard definition, from the BSI’s PAS180 Smart City Vocabulary document:
“‘Smart cities’ is a term denoting the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.”
Who could argue with that? It’s a good definition. But the term carries a lot of baggage with it.
Push and pull
Smart cities have been the subject of aggressive marketing from the major tech companies for some years. Their development has come to be seen by some as a success of technology marketing over citizen need. Something of a corporate takeover.
People have issues with the command-and-control format of many smart city programs, with their ‘control centres’ featuring giant screens and dashboards for some mastermind at the middle to monitor the city.
There’s an issue with the focus on cities — something my Republic of Things colleague Andrew Beechener points out in this episode of my podcast (though you will have to forgive the poor audio quality – they mostly sound much better than this!). While the global challenge is focused on the resource consumption and prosperity of cities, there’s a good argument in the UK for putting a greater focus on towns, villages, and rural areas, which perhaps need much more support to deliver services and drive economic regeneration.
This last point I can’t really address: I’m afraid I too have been largely focused on cities. I’m pleased that Republic of Things is working on programmes outside of cities to apply technology to bring public service benefits. But the other issues, I hope I can.
Defining the living city
My vision of a living city is of one where the application of technology — sensing, AI, 3D printing and more — allows us to bring static, ‘dead’ infrastructure like buildings, streets and bridges to life.
By ‘life’ I mean that they exhibit three key attributes of ‘life’: they can sense their environment, they can process those inputs and make decisions, and they can act on them, not just over a short time frame but over a long one. In other words, they can evolve.
How would this work? Imagine a town hall: it has public spaces and offices, service desks and function rooms. There are lots of different and perhaps competing demands on all of the resources: power, light, space, heat. The chances of it being designed completely optimally from day one are minimal. Even if it were, needs change.
Now imagine the building can sense the patterns of consumption for all these resources. Imagine over time it can reshape itself: relocating walls and doors, heaters and lamps, entrances and exits, power sockets, batteries and solar cells, in order to optimise itself to the uses required.
Everything the building did would be inside a set of constraints, both functional and aesthetic, defined by the original architect. You could even include some more joyful constraints: a perfectly optimised building may be incredibly dull.
Of course the building may go off-track a little, so there would be a lifetime (of the building) role for the architect as ‘gardener’, tending his living creation and taming its wilder traits.
Smart city or future city?
This idea positions the living city somewhere in the future: we don’t have the technology to make this happen today. But it has other explicitly distinguishing features that stand it apart from the smart city.
Firstly, the living city is, by its nature, evolved from an existing city. Because they are evolutionary, the living characteristics don’t have to be built rigidly into a new structure. It’s easy to see how a relatively low cost package of sensors and a cloud-based AI could fairly rapidly start to optimise an existing building and, lacking any robotic construction capabilities, start to make recommendations to the owners/managers about adaptations that would add value: changes in lighting, connectivity, power provision, heating.
Secondly, the living city is a collaborative ecosystem rather than a command-and-control system. In a living city every building and vehicle is recognised as part of the community, with expectations on it in terms of behaviour and interaction. Being a good member of the community means managing your resource consumption and sharing it with others: venting waste stored heat to keep the queue at a bus-stop warm, illuminating offices at night to light a dark street, or releasing energy/restricting consumption to help balance the local grid.
A living city is less about central control and more about maintaining these standards of behaviour, interaction and collaboration.
Building the living city
If these ideas appeal, then there is an obvious question: how do we build a living city?
The answer is about focusing on the interfaces. So many smart city projects to date have been about defining a whole stack: every technology component from the sensor to the display systems. This comes in part from the companies who have been driving the projects. For me, what is important is to define how every layer in the stack interacts: what data is passed, and how. Leave the specifications beyond this to individual applications.
If these are the ‘vertical’ interfaces, through the technology stack, then there is a second dimension to consider. The ‘horizontal’ interfaces between the members of this new ecosystem. What will be the standards of behaviour? How will we ensure that every citizen can enjoy the benefits of the living city?
These are the bigger challenges.