Monday, 8 November 2010

Smart Thinking. Smart Cities

Believe it or not, but planning still relies on good old multi-coloured plans to allocate future land uses. In the age of GIS and the 'network society', the 2D plan is still king. Whilst technology is slowly filtering into Council planning services, one could be forgiven for thinking that society has differed little from 1947. So a special report on Smart Systems in the latest edition of The Economist has got me excited about the opportunities for technology in planning the city.

Firstly, what is a Smart City? It characterises an approach where improvements are made to the quality of life and economic performance of a city through the application of information technologies. This involves building a system whereby the feedback of performance data allows the component or system to become more efficient. It is usually applied to major infrastructures, such as water, energy and transport, but can also apply to city management.

This article (here) describes how Singapore is at the forefront of urban technologies and encourages private firms to try new approaches in the city before selling them elsewhere. Similarly, new cities such as Masdar have placed great emphasis on joined-up systems that showcase a range of green technologies. For example, the use of sensors allows new kinds of data to be generated to help practitioners understand how the urban environment operates in reality.

This clearly has huge potential, as demonstrated by TheSmarterCity programme being pushed by IBM. With technology infiltrating all elements of society, it is only time before our homes become more responsive as a result of interpreting data. Clearly, the ownership and safety of data must be addressed, but that should not hold this back.

However, whilst smart technologies can easily be incorporated into Masdar and other planned settlements, the role of smart technology in existing cities is more complicated. Getting permission to dig up the road is hard enough, let alone trying to integrate services that often date from Victorian times! But this should not be a barrier and smart technology can operate on a number of scales - from the city-level down to individual homes. The Amsterdam Innovation Motor is one such example that aims to identify and support emerging smart systems that can be built into the urban environment. It is therefore up to planners to promote Smart Systems at all levels, from national policies to site-specific policies.

So how does this relate to day-to-day planning? Well, instead of 2D plans perhaps it is time to move towards, what Paul Finch has termed, the Mastersection. This moves beyond the common Masterplan and seeks to look beneath surface and understand how new (and existing) development should combine with underground services - whether this be utilities or fibre optics. It does seem odd that what goes on underground is such an afterthought. Perhaps if we considered a holistic approach to land development there would be greater opportunities for Smart Systems to be established. It would definitely reduce the amount of road works! This requires a shift of mindset and for planning to move away from (above) land uses and more towards being a city engineer that understands how the city operates as a system of networks and infrastructures.


  1. Agree that a holistic approach is needed. At the same time, finding small areas to embed intelligence into the (previously) unintelligent network is important too. So we need to be broad in our thinking, but find discrete opportunities to embed and test, then scale from there, because, as you mentioned, most cities aren't being built from scratch like Masdor and we don't have the luxury of ripping and replacing our cities like we would a data center...

  2. What i'm finding is that it's possible to integrate existing systems the result of which is an information and communications database.

    typically smartcards (with mag strip and barcodes) seem to be enough to mesh technologies together using the web.

    I'm not convinced that many cities in the UK where i'm based can afford the numbers that IBM are talking about. Nor do i think it's needed.

    Check out what we're doing with

  3. China is at the epicenter with systems demanded for both urban retrofit/renovation as well as new build. Singapore and other tech companies are involved and sharing expertise that will be applied to a real city at scale.

    Check out the Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. They have developed a comprehensive sustainability indicator system, their precursor to development of an Eco-City Digital Platform. It is under development already, and perhaps when completed, will be the worlds first.

    Eco City Sustainability Indicator System + Digital City Platform

    Smart Grid Demonstration Project in Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city

  4. @adamclyde @mike - agree, with less money around for grandiose projects then testing new ideas on smaller schemes will be increasingly important.

    @brian - thanks for the links. maybe David Cameron PM may have taken notice on his recent trip and will bring back to the UK?!