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Urban Whack-a-Mole

Rather than viewing cities as a series of Whack-a-Mole problems to be solved, we should think about how we want to live.


Smart city discussions are often framed around problems to be solved – traffic congestion, pollution, overcrowding, crime, etc. When we mention opportunities, it’s usually in the context of the market for companies to come in and ‘fix’ these issues with technology.

It’s undeniable that cities do face huge challenges. Eye-popping statistics heap the pressure on, if you want to think of it that way.

Launching a new report on the city population boom and rise of megacities, the UN’s John Wilmoth reminded us that urbanisation can also be seen as a positive.

“The increasing concentration of people in cities provides a way of more economically providing services,” he said. “We find that urban populations have better access to healthcare and education.” He added that urbanisation may also help to minimise our environmental impact.

We’re not often encouraged to think of it this way, yet it immediately shifts your outlook.

Five types of city

Similarly, a new report from the Global Future Cities Alliance (GFCA) looks to put some detail on the vague meaning of “smart city”. The whitepaper details five stages of a modern city:

Analogue cities: a traditional, unconnected city that does not contain a broadband communications infrastructure

Wired cities: a city that has implemented an IT backbone, but has not exploited it fully, hence yet little in the way of automation or smartness

Digital cities: a specific and well-defined urban area providing improved data-sharing and connection through information communications technology. Many departments are automating their systems with digital tools, but they have not begun to centralise data and use data collectively to make good decisions

• Smart cities: a city that uses a combination of technologies and connected utilities to pursue higher quality of life, performance, and sustainability

Enlightened cities: a smart city that extends its mission to using technology to help nurture cultural, social, and spiritual advancements

The report describes seven aspects of building an enlightened city and puts some tangible ideas next to these, such as health and wellness, which includes a centralised, lifetime, electronic health records system; education, incorporating virtual classrooms and truly personalised learning aided by big data, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality; and the curation of culture, including areas of tranquillity where people can spend time away from the hustle and stress of daily life.

In the case of tranquil spaces, for example, technology likely won’t be required at all – probably the opposite, highlighting the need to plan for people, not just problems.

I’m not sure the term “enlightened cities” will catch on but framing the situation around what our cities could be like and how we want to live feels more positive than viewing it as an endless and ever-intensifying game of Whack-a-Mole.

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