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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that given the widespread and comprehensive nature of the development of smart cities, the technology used may become outdated by the time the whole project is completed.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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