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A Critique of Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia


smartAnthony Townsend’s Smart Cities looks at the forces that have helped build the concept of these highly technological communities of today. An urban planner and technology expert by profession, smart cities are the result of the advancements in ICT, the need to decrease one’s carbon footprint and create sustainable communities subsisting on adequate resources. The author takes on a historical viewpoint of the concept, how world events, natural and man-made disturbances, and increasing urbanization have helped (or pushed) societies to move towards embracing technology to make better communities. In the end, Townsend goes on to say that: “The key goal of establishing smart cities is to get people thinking about the risks of letting big tech companies design future cities” (Townsend, 2013).

Townsend gave the city of Songdo as the primary example of a smart city that was recently created by South Korea. Built from scratch by Koreans in 2009, the Songdo International Business District (IBD) sits on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land that was part of the country’s stimulus package to revive South Korea’s floundering economy. The whole city is identified as the “world’s largest experiment in urban automation”, with several sensors installed in the roads, electrical grids, and water system “to precisely track, respond to, and even predict the flow of people and material” (Ibid.). The city is literally run on information that only demonstrates Korea’s technological prowess.

Is it what we REALLY need?

Are smart cities what we really need? Yes and no. Critics have questioned smart city initiatives already developed by other countries today. Besides Songdo, Abu Dhabi is also building its own smart city, Masdar City, which will be completed in 2025. Greenfield (2006) was against the creation of smart cities and proposed the development of current cities instead. Smedley (2013) also supported the view that given the widespread and comprehensive nature of the development of smart cities, the technology used may become outdated by the time the whole project is completed.

On the other end of the spectrum that support smart cities are those who support the view of retrofitting existing communities. Greenfield has advocated the retrofitting movement, explaining:

“We do need a radical new approach, but the radical new approach may be hiding right under our noses. Retrofitting means an acknowledgment of and an adaptation to reality. Habits and patterns of sociability change—we cannot begin to know, when we layout a plan for a new city, what use people are going to make of it. The street literally does find its own use for things” (Greenfield, 2013).

Eames (2013) asserted that the focus should be on building sustainable communities that aim to reduce carbon emissions through the efficient use of water, energy, and waste resources. Smedley maintained that governments should build and support existing cities to respond to technological and environmental challenges.

While most countries have already taken the effort to upgrade its mobile/IT system to compete with world standards, these upgrades are small and are not yet entirely connected. By investing more on these existing communities where population is higher, it will create more impact.

Conclusion

The purpose of creating smart cities is not to build a technological utopia, but rather to build a better community that has less carbon footprint and more efficiency in the delivery of services. It requires a comprehensive ICT master plan that will focus on the areas of governance, policy framework, environment, economy and the community. Underlying these areas include hardware/infrastructure and know-how of people in using such technology.

In the end, one thing is clear: society is changing and urbanization is growing at a rapid pace. Energy, water, and food resources are becoming scarce and will require effective management and utilization of these resources. Smart cities offer a plausible (and ideal) solution to lessening the environmental impact of an increasing world population, however small or insignificant it may be compared to the size of the world population today. Moreover, its perceived success may provide a test bed for existing cities to follow suit by retrofitting or working on small-scale technological improvements that may likewise provide a similar impact on the community. The future is ours for the taking, and the future is now.

Townsend’s book is a fascinating read on how societies are envisioned in the future.  It is much like Disney’s Tomorrowland: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”  Some societies are already there, some almost there, but most of them can only hope to be there.

Bibliography

Eames, M. e. (2013). Retrofit City Futures: Visions for Urban Sustainability. Retrieved from Retrofit 2050: http://www.retrofit2050.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Visionsreportfinal.pdf

Greenfield, A. (2013). The City is Here For You to Use. New York: Verso Publishing.

Townsend, A. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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Song’s Books


 

The Pilot's Wife
5 of 5 stars
How would you feel if a person you thought you knew was a different person after all? What would you do if you found out that your husband led a double life? Anita Shreve’s novel plays with this central theme in this book. Kathryn Lyon…
A Thousand Splendid Suns
5 of 5 stars
Khaled Hosseini never fails to captivate readers with his picturesque locations and vulnerable characters. Set in the backdrop of the Afghan-Russian war, Hosseini weaves the poignant story of Mariam and her seemingly blinded adulation f…

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Book Review: Gladwell’s Blink


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without ThinkingBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever made a snap decision which you felt was probably baseless or only a gut feel but turned out to be one of the best decisions you made? Gladwell looks at the tendency of people to make quick judgments and how these decisions may in fact be based on solid and reasonable grounds though we may not realize it immediately. Reading this book will make you realize that there are some decisions in life where you don’t really need to know everything — but only just the right amount of information to make very good choices.

View all my reviews

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World


This man is truly a wise leader. Reading his insights on the future of China, India, and the US as well as the pitfalls of Western (American)-style democracy and the direction of globalization, one gets into the mind and character of this great political leader. One will realize the reason why Singapore rose to become a developed and modern city-state it is now. A recommended read for leaders!

I borrowed this book from the office library, curious what this man had to say about global issues. His insights are very detailed and spot on. He doesn’t mince words with his views on America and other countries. While not a philosopher (he is the very first one to say this), his beliefs impinge on a combination of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Confucius and other contemporary political thinkers–and these all appear very seamless in him.

The book, released by the MIT Press, is a compilation of interviews and talks by Lee.

Favorite quotes from the book:

“A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people, and the quality of their leaders which ensure it an honorable place in history.”

“Contrary to what American political commentators say, I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development. The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people, plus enabling the maximum of personal freedoms compatible with the freedoms of others in society.”

Book Quote on Markets and Inequality


market

Quote from The Price of Inequality:

“… market forces are real, but they are shaped by political processes. Markets are shaped by laws, regulations, and institutions. Every law, every regulation, every institutional arrangement has distributive consequences-and the way we have been shaping America’s market economy works to the advantage of those at the top and to the disadvantage of the rest.” –Joseph E. Stiglitz, Author

One of my favorite quotes from Stiglitz’s book.  He poses a very interesting observation in American society today which may very well be applicable in other countries as well–that the wealth of the nation is only distributed among the rich, what he calls the “top 1 percent”, and no one else down below.

Cultivating a Family of Readers


(Source: Google Images)

I come from a family of readers.  My grandfather, a Chinese soldier who served the Imperial Court and escaped from China that was on the verge of falling into Communism, was a voracious reader who enjoyed reading Western literature just as well as Chinese folklore.  According to my mother, he wasn’t an educated man but taught himself how to read and write Mandarin when he was young.  No doubt he was intelligent, because he later on learned how to read and write in English and Spanish, the latter being the mode the communication between him and my mother, as I would later read in his letters to my mother as a student.

After him came more avid readers in the pack.  My grandfather had 18 children in all (2 died during infancy), and all of them are wide readers.  Just to pick the ones who influenced me the most are the following below:

Uncle Pinky: The Encyclopedia Maniac

Among my mother’s siblings, my Uncle Pinky was the most voracious of all.  Yes, it was weird he had a girl’s name (he was nothing BUT!), but apparently all of the males had names with a “Pin” prefix as my grandfather had wished.  Correspondingly, all of women (my mother and aunt) had Chinese names affixed with “Bin”.  How and why this is so is already lost to me.

Going back to my Uncle Pinky, he read a lot of materials and knew a lot of trivia.  For example, it was to him that I learned that a whale’s mucous was used for perfume.  I never believed it till I came across this fact in a book myself, and that this substance is in fact called ambergris.  He loved reading the news and was good at history and current events.  He had trivia for everything, a walking encyclopedia.

Uncle Pinnen: The Grammar Fanatic

What my Uncle Pinky was to trivia was my Uncle Pinnen to grammar.  He loved world events and trivia as well, but he put more emphasis on grammar and spelling.  My uncle would quiz me on grammar construction every now and then when I was little and intensified all the more when I was in college.  He had a flair for semantics and word play and engaged me and brother in it.  I would remember him to sit quietly in the corner of the sofa answering crossword puzzles that he would finish in less than an hour, and these are really large puzzles.  He sent me old pocketbooks to read and occasionally wrote to me during college years.

Looking back, he held a lot of influence on me when I was younger and I attribute much of my passion for reading from him.  I could have been a journalist were it not for my mother!

My Uncle Pinhoy:  The Comic Book Afficionado

I am not much of a comic book fan despite the fact that I read Archie and Beetle Bailey comics as a teen, but I must give due credit to my Uncle Pinhoy for bringing me and my brother into the world of comics.

Actually, my uncle inherited this habit from my lolo who was a great fan of Superman and the Justice League as a kid.  I was lucky enough to have read the earliest series of this DC Comics superhero, in mint condition at that!  I learned early on that there was a Super Dog and even a Super Monkey through these comics.  The cartoons were so fresh then—Superman looked totoy (youthful) in his costume.  Everytime he was on a visit, he would let us read his new purchases before bringing it home to the province.  I grew up with Beetle Bailey, Blondie and Hagar the Horrible.

Between me and my brother, it was my brother who was influenced to take interest in comic books.  In fact, he has a whole stash of comic books in his room!  Through him I learned who Captain America, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four were even before they became movie adaptations. I can tell you quite frankly that between the comic books of yesteryears and today, I would prefer the oldies anytime, thank you.

My Mom: The Domestic Diva

If my uncles loved trivia, history and grammar, my mother was crazy on housekeeping, entertainment and curios.  Being a Home Economics graduate, she loved reading stuffs about home improvement, gardening and relationships.  Never the one to read voluminous books and novels, she preferred materials that were brief and segmented.  She hated reading novels because she hated picking up the next chapter from the last one she left off.  With magazines and booklets, she learned how to make flowers bloom quickly. She has a yen for UFOs and Hollywood celebrities.

So What Does That Make Me?

Because of all these influences, I read a variety of things.  From my early days of Barbara Cartland and Judith Krantz, I’ve now expanded my scope to include religion, autobiography, marketing and business.  But for everyday quick fixes, give me a broad newspaper and I will read it from page to page, except a little of sports.  I will probably never read E. L. James’ book, but give me any other reading material and I will probably dig myself in it.  The fun in reading novels is coming across a new word that you have to consult a dictionary with.  That way, I keep alive the challenge my Uncle Pinnen told me and that is never to stop learning, even if it’s just learning a new word each day.  You never have to use it, but if you do however, you can be sure it will be a word that will stick with you always.

Not Genes, But Habits

What am I driving at?  Actions are not the result of genes but rather developing habits.  I certainly did not get the reading frenzy just because I was borne to a family of readers.  Anybody can cultivate it, and the younger you start the better it will reap fruits.

 

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