Most of what we need for smart cities already exists

Culture, play, and an emphasis on fair use will help smart cities take root.

The compelling thing about the emerging Internet of Things, says technologist Tom Armitage, is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel — or the water and sewage systems, or the electrical and transportation grids. To a large degree, you can create massive connectivity by simple (well, relatively simple) augmentation.

“By overlaying existing infrastructure with intelligent software and sensors, you can turn it into something else and connect it to a larger system,” says Armitage. “Yes, you could simply design and construct an entirely new system, but that’s incredibly expensive, it would take a lot time, and you may lose some things (of cultural or architectural value) that you may want to save. It’s better to adapt existing systems to your goals if you have the technology to do it — and we have it.”

Armitage speaks from direct experience. He was one of the collaborators behind Hello Lamp Post, a 2013 Bristol, England, project aimed at engaging people on a deep and intimate level with the urban landscape. In conjunction with PAN Studio and media artist Gyorgyi Galik, Armitage designed software interfaces for Bristol’s “street furniture” — the eponymous lamp posts, of course, but also manholes, post boxes, telephone poles, traffic bollards, and trash cans.

Using smart phones, pedestrians could “wake up” the objects by accessing codes generally used by the city to identify street items that required repair. Each bit of infrastructure would make some kind of declamatory statement — sometimes gracious and welcoming, sometimes didactic, sometimes peevish. The “interlocutor” would then respond, and a brief exchange would ensue. The object would then invite the passerby to return for more conversation.

Each time the object was activated, more information on the life and history of the city was revealed. By the time the project completed its four-month run, Bristol residents and visitors had logged more than 25,000 texts with their favorite street items, sharing ruminations, stories, aspirations and suggestions.

None of this required any significant retooling of Bristol’s infrastructure. “We didn’t have to build the system in the sense of creating something whole and new,” Armitage continues. “Most of the things you need for a smart city already exist.”

Specifically, smart phones and wireless connections are ubiquitous. Sensors are cheap and widely available. The requisite apps exist or can be designed and applied as needed. The components that actually constitute a city, obviously, are in place — subway systems, traffic lights, water hydrants, lamp posts.

“It’s really a matter of creating the smart city by symbiotic consensus, by building layers on layers,” Armitage says.

Armitage acknowledges there is one stumbling block on this path to transformational connectivity: content. But that will only be temporary, he maintains. Seminal content can be strategically seeded, and as participants interact with system components and each other, the volume and richness of the information grows — as do the connections. (The similarity to neurological development, of course, is hard to avoid here.)

The unspoken (well, not always unspoken) end point of any new technology is monetization. And connectivity on the urban scale presents abundant opportunities for making money. But trying to aggressively monetize connectivity — to make its components and systems proprietary — will only hamper its development, says Armitage.

“It will be very hard to gain traction on this if it’s pushed in one direction, especially if that direction is monetization,” he says. “This is going to work best as a mash-up, by merging multiple sources. This has to be a shared venture. The technology has to be shared. You have your secret sauce? Great. I have mine. But to derive maximum benefit from either, we have to combine them, and add them to all the others. The truly connected environment, which will include entrepreneurial ventures, and livelihoods, and profits, will grow out of all our contributions.”

Back to Hello, Lamp Post: if it seems there’s not much direct utility in this particular project, that’s deliberate. The connected environment shouldn’t be focused relentlessly and drearily on maximizing efficiencies, maintains Armitage. It must also address aesthetics and culture — and play. It must emphasize our humanity rather than our roles as cogs in the uber-machine. And Hello Lamp Post hit that metric dead-on. It won the first Playable City Award sponsored by Watershed, a “cross-artform” organization based in Bristol that is purposefully undermining the barriers separating art, culture, civil life, and politics.

Indeed, Armitage is making a larger point with his emphasis on playfulness in the urban landscape: the necessity of turning the Internet of Things toward shared technologies and away from expensive toys and googaws.

“Personal objects and high-end products are fine in the context of a connected environment,” he says. “But when you think about what will really drive this whole sector forward, things like smart bus scheduling and smart bicycle hiring systems will prove a greater contribution than expensive, personal objects or smart thermostats for pricey houses. Again, the connected environment is at its most powerful, most transformative, when the technology and the connections are widely shared.”

We can go the top-down model, Armitage continues, “where companies with expensive products to sell effectively direct the course of events. But that will be limiting. The best route, the most effective and civically responsible route, will mean emphasizing fair use, building things everyone in the urban environment can use. That’s the quickest and most equitable way to get to this connected future — engaging many citizens in many small, personal actions.”

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