I have been deeply interested in the subject of intelligent cities for the last three years and am living in the fourth most populated city in the world.
Here is what I think:
While considering whether intelligent cities are good or bad, we must first scope the topic and then dive deeper in the analysis. To me fundamentally there are two inter-related stakeholders –citizens and environs. Under “Environs”, I would include both natural (trees, river, earth, water) as well as man-made matter like buildings and utilities. Under “Citizens” I would include individuals, families, communities and institutions – public and private. So idea of intelligent cities being good or bad needs to be examined in the context of environs and citizens.
Let us go back in history and remember one of the world’s earliest major urban settlements: Mohenjo-Daro. At its peak, it is said that approximately 35000 people lived here. Other aspects that make this perhaps one of the greatest and earliest planned cities of the world are: grid streets, market places, granaries and drainage systems. More importantly, this city model was replicated in other locations across the Indus Valley. We do not know whether all the people in the city were happy or not; but evidence that the city was re-built seven times after massive flooding suggests that there were merits in the city systems and processes.
Cut to 4500 years ahead into the 21st century. What has changed for better and what are the things that have taken a turn for the worse in cities? Certainly the environs do not seem to be better off with more crowding, pollution, depletion of greenery and extinction of species. The big changes affecting citizens in the recent decades are around the quality and quantity of information and reduction of time needed in accessing it. Information and data can now be created and collected from “things” and analyzed and disseminated real time. Intelligent cities, in simple terms, are city based networks which leverage these sources of information to do good for citizens and environs. The question now comes to what specific mechanisms and focus areas intelligent cities must adopt and how they must balance the needs of citizens and environs.
This question can be best answered by taking some use cases in a domain – take health – and defining what “good” means, to begin with, longer life-spans, fewer diseases, faster recovery, contained infections, and overall well-being are some signs of good health of citizens. Good health of environs could be around measures such as good air quality and absence of water pollution and presence of open spaces. These benefits need to be made available by cities on a ‘lifelong’ basis consistently to all citizens – young and old, rich and poor, natives as well as expats. With significant improvements in life-sciences and healthcare over past few decades, intelligent cities aim to make these available to all citizens in an affordable manner. Tiered community health center deployments enabled by provisioning of electronic health records and ‘smart’ networking are some examples of cities delivering quality health care within resource constraints. Information from social networks, family databases, public ‘tollgates’ and utility services can be mashed up to identify and control spread of communicable diseases in intelligent cities. Another use case would be around using Big Data and mapping technologies to find ‘clusters’ or ‘patterns’ of symptoms, consumption or behavior and to take appropriate action. For example, studying cigarette sale volumes with presence of cancer patients in a community and extrapolating findings, cities can initiate focused campaigns.
Questions do arise around privacy and freedom which I must admit is still up for discussion. Does carrying a smart-card (or locket!) embedded with your medical records make you feel better or insecure? Appropriate ‘balance’ needs to be reached between voluntary and involuntary information sharing and leverage. (My opinion is that the benefits of sharing information are far greater than risks of not doing so.) This balance can be achieved by designing citizen-centric processes and policies leveraging a common framework. Do you agree?
We can find similar examples of ‘good’ across other domains like utilities, security, education, transportation and more.