Despite the buzz around a few hyperconnected cities and districts being planned and built as urban utopias from the ground up‚ÄĒsuch as Portugal‚Äôs PlanIT Valley, Toronto‚Äôs Quayside district, Qatar‚Äôs Lusail, and South Korea‚Äôs Songdo‚ÄĒthe real potential for technology to boost the quality of life lies in existing cities, where most people already live.
‚ÄúThe spaces around us are becoming permeated with the Internet of Things, a fusion of bits and atoms,‚ÄĚ says architect Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, a multidisciplinary research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ‚ÄúIts manifestations are everywhere. From energy to waste management, mobility to water distribution, city planning to citizen engagement, digital technology is facilitating novel interactions with urban space.‚ÄĚ In New York, sidewalk kiosks on former pay phone sites provide access to public Wi-Fi and city services, while in Moscow, an intelligent transport system tackles the city‚Äôs near-critical congestion. Connected water infrastructure in Christchurch, New Zealand, helped prioritize repairs following a major earthquake; air-quality sensors inform Beijing‚Äôs regulation of construction and traffic; and real-time consumption data facilitates distributed energy initiatives in Copenhagen. Around the world, to varying degrees, existing municipalities are retrofitting with new technology in pursuit of familiar priorities, in combinations tailored to each city‚Äôs particular circumstances.
But it‚Äôs not the technology per se that‚Äôs having the impact. It‚Äôs not even the data that the tech generates. The significance of ‚Äúsmart‚ÄĚ technology comes from how people use the data to inform decisions about their city.
‚ÄúSmart city‚ÄĚ is a catch-all for the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to improve a city‚Äôs operations and its citizens‚Äô quality of life. The term lacks consistent usage, even among experts, who generally don‚Äôt like it, preferring alternatives with more inherent meaning, such as ‚Äúconnected,‚ÄĚ ‚Äú sensing,‚ÄĚ or even the neologism ‚Äúsenseable,‚ÄĚ which, says Ratti, implies both ‚Äúable to sense‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúsensible.‚ÄĚ Whatever they want to call it, some cities are crafting a more livable urban fabric, particularly two municipalities perennially acknowledged to be among the world‚Äôs most connected, Barcelona and Singapore. Another showing potential to use this data this way is Los Angeles.
Barcelona‚Äôs development of its technological infrastructure stretches back about 30 years, and now encompasses more than 40 programs. One of the most transformative may be the city‚Äôs ‚Äúsuperblocks,‚ÄĚ an initiative being instituted in existing neighborhoods in response to increasingly congested streets and associated noise and pollution levels.
Not to be confused with the disconnected, monolithic superblocks that Jane Jacobs effectively discredited, each Barcelona superblock comprises a three-by-three, nine-block neighborhood of traffic-calmed and shared streets. Local traffic can enter only along the center block of each side, drive slowly around that block, and reemerge on the street from which it entered, which limits through-traffic to the perimeter. Within the block, the scheme liberates more than 70 percent of the surface previously occupied by cars, reducing noise, improving air quality, and providing much-needed public space.
The clustering of blocks, exclusion of traffic, and installation of picnic tables, play areas, and potted trees may seem like an analog initiative, but it rests on ‚Äúdata-integrated decision-making,‚ÄĚ says Salvador Rueda, director of the Ag√®ncia d‚ÄôEcologia Urbana de Bar- celona (BCN Ecologia) and originator of the superblock program. Rueda first proposed the superblock concept in 1987 (even then, noise and poor air quality were marring city life), but a lack of reliable projections about traffic impacts stalled it. Now, with contemporary sensing and simulation technologies, says Rueda, ‚Äúwe can use data to advocate, to plan, and to verify.‚ÄĚ
For example, increasingly sophisticated monitoring equipment has enabled the creation of a network of fixed and moving sensors that connect with ICTs and a cloud-computing process. These make it possible to assess a range of air-quality parameters‚ÄĒparticulates, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants‚ÄĒand to generate accurate, real-time est