The concept of Smart Cities offers the promise of urban hubs leveraging connected technologies to become increasingly prosperous, safe, healthy, resilient, and clean. What may not be obvious in achieving these objectives is that many already-existing utility assets can serve as the foundation for a Smart City transition. The following is a broad discussion on the areas of overlap between utilities and smart cities, highlighting working knowledge from experience at PG&E.
Scott Paterson: How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?
When thinking about this question I find I’m focusing on division and how I might perceive how a division of any kind might be experienced. For starters, technology is designed. It gets designed. This design process can be the make or break point when technology is going to become divisive or not. There is a reason your microwave clock blinks 12:00 or car radio clock is off. It’s too hard to adjust it. That’s not user error that’s technology design error. The folks involved didn’t consider how people might use or whether they might even desire such a time display.
It’s all too common in this diagram for people to start with what they know – technical feasibility or business viability. That’s what they’re experts at, where they live 24/7. Innovation can come from anywhere and anybody. You can start anywhere on the diagram, but you will find if you cover off on all three circles by the time you finish you’ll have followed a different path that if you hadn’t.
To bring a kind of tangent to this a bit I want to share two recent stories I’ve come across that highlight someone overcoming division and someone perpetuating division. I don’t think either of them considers what they’re doing as this, but in light of the question, “How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities,” you can see their actions in relief to the pressures of a divide.
First is the photographer Olivia Bee. She has an amazing, inspiring Ted talk where she shares her point of view on motivation and dreams. She discusses shooting photos despite pressures to conform, as she says, “you have to do stuff besides the stuff you have to do”. My favorite phrase of hers is, “aspirational compromise is for pussies”. While watching I was wondering about the impact of advertising about technology. How much is that messaging causing a divide? Watch video here:
The second is a blog post from Bernalwood. My neighborhood blog. It’s about a Richard Florida map of San Francisco, specifically Bernal Heights, where the blogger points out, “…if at times Bernal Heights seems a bit divided on itself, well… that’s because in some ways it is…”.
But upon closer viewing you realize it is really the technology constructing the divide, visualizing the divide. The granularity of the data combined with the mapping technique cause generic divisions to be drawn that I suspect are much more nuanced. At issue here seems to be the kind of categorization of data – of people – that Olivia so strongly rejects. And at the heart of it is design. Before I get too far off topic, I’ll close by sharing an article in the Atlantic about this issue of maps and subjectivity.
If we start by engaging and considering people, their behaviors and motivations, we can change the course of the design process – to be user centered, not divisive.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
When the idea of smart cities was born, some ten to fifteen years ago, engineers, including me, saw it primarily as a control system problem with the goal of improving efficiency, specifically the sustainability of the city. Indeed, the source of much of the early technology was the process industry, which was a pioneer in applying intelligent control to chemical plants, oil refineries, and power stations. Such plants superficially resemble cities: spatial scales from meters to kilometers, temporal scales from seconds to days, similar scales of energy and material inputs, and thousands of sensing and control points.
So it seemed quite natural to extend such sophisticated control systems to the management of cities. The ability to collect vast amounts of data – even in those pre-smart phone days – about what goes on in cities and to apply analytics to past, present, and future states of the city seemed to offer significant opportunities for improving efficiency and resilience. Moreover, unlike tightly-integrated process plants, cities seemed to decompose naturally into relatively independent sub-systems: transportation, building management, water supply, electricity supply, waste management, and so forth. Smart meters for electricity, gas, and water were being installed. GPS devices were being imbedded in vehicles and mobile telephones. Building controls were gaining intelligence. Cities were a major source for Big Data. With all this information available, what could go wrong?
If you want a healthier community, you don’t just treat illness. You prevent it. And you don’t prevent it by telling people to quit smoking, eat right and exercise. You help them find jobs and places to live and engaging schools so they can pass all that good on, so they can build solid futures and healthy neighborhoods and communities filled with hope.