Science & Nature

Jul 1, 2017


The age of smart things is threatening to turn many things into "smart-something". And, one of the most important aspects of these transformations, is that the size of these "smart-things" is no longer a limitation.

The concept of smart city or future city is no longer attached to the domain of science fiction or some kind of far-away idea of social organisation. And no, it's not also about they being occupied only by small cars or free Wi-Fi for all.

Let there be no doubt: cities are changing and, soon, our cities will be smart! And the thing that's been giving strong contribution for this profound change is technology and its evolution.

The development of "Internet of Things" (an interactive network between physical devices), implementation of various types and functions of sensors, increasingly fast communication network, global position systems, Cloud Computing and Big Data have been contributing towards the symbiosis between the physical and digital worlds.

In a close future, all these components will be connected, in permanent communication and in real time, and they will be able to change simple things such as the path back home after a days' work.

But what are, really, smart cities?

They are more efficient cities, automatized, autonomous, sustainable and pleasant to live in. They are cities which nurture the citizen instead of repelling them.

"Pure imagination", some would say.

It is estimated that, in 2020, 20 percent of all devices will be connected. And, UN numbers point out for, in 2050, an amazing number of 70 percent of the worlds' population will be living and working in the cities. So we can have an idea, we are talking about 6,7 billion inhabitants.

Nowadays, there are already being implemented smart and autonomous transportation networks, there are already cars which don't need the intervention of the human element and there even are cities where garbage containers are being monitored for better waste management and recycling.

In San Francisco, in the United States, traffic control systems already allow forwarding huge masses of vehicles by alternative routes, thus reducing the unnecessary waste of fuel and pollutant gaseous emission. In Barcelona, Spain, there are already sensors implanted which allow the forecast of climate changes, thus preventing water waste. In Holland, in the Ameland island, a new smart public lighting system was installed: new LED lamps emit a soft blue-green light, which becomes stronger and brighter to the pawns approach. And there those who consider London, England, as todays' smartest city and a "living laboratory for technological experiments".

Still think it's only imagination?

"Smart", doesn't only mean connecting devices and services, it means huge quantity data storage. The objective is quite clear: by converging all collected data into a command centre, it is possible to assess with confidence, the health state of the city itself so that its efficiency can be improved at each moment.

Because, a city, to be smart, will surely have to be so. It's the same to say, In addition to collecting this monumental data volume, it will have to know what to do with it and, above all, how to act according to it improving the performance of services, inhabitants, transportation, equipment and even buildings.

There is already an opinion trend that holds that the creation of intelligent cities is not just a technological issue, but a political, social, economic and environmental imperative.

Plus, there are clear signs that, before the evidences, political classes are committed to create legal support which can prevent this technological "lock-in" to be used in the sense of loss of privacy, freedom and rights of citizens.

All this because, in the Big Data age, collected data have been frequently considered as impartial and free from political ideology. And this is not necessarily true, as these data are often conditioned to contexts, methods, collecting technology and submitted to scrutiny in the processing, management, analysis and storage stage.

It is, therefore, necessary to understand that the cities organizations are complementary and complex systems, shaped by culture and economical scales, generating conflicts and dynamics of its own. And that these technological evolutions should be placed at the service of a greater inclusion of different origins and cultures, on creation of conditions for the involvement of citizens in decision-making and in the definition of the urban future.

Almost 70 years after the publication of George Orwell's "1984", the concept of "Big Brother" strikes back.

It's just that, no matter how smart and efficient the (inevitable) cities of the future may be, it is important to be aware that it is very likely they will destroy democracy. Furthermost, we should understand the benefits of these "smart cities" are undeniable. And that we've reached the point when the right question is not whether we can afford to build them, but rather, if we can afford not to.

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