Smart Cities

Smart cities have been a concept for many years, I would even say decades.

However, everyone is getting excited about the potential of smart cities as we now have greater access to data in a digital world.

At CES in Vegas this year, Toyota revealed their plans for an urban prototype called ‘Woven City.’

I have been tinkering with buildings for my entire career and have focussed on how we can improve outcomes for those using them. However, I have increasingly been looking at how we can extend this further and how we can connect people, buildings and places.

When you research smart cities there is a lot of information at a macro level. For example, how infrastructure such as roads and rail interconnect or how energy usage is optimised. There always seems to be a lot about traffic lights. This is all fantastic stuff but beyond me as a simple architect.

While these big engineering integrations will make a huge difference, and are necessary to make it come alive for people who use out cities every day, we also need to communicate the value at a micro level.

The reality is that our cities are pretty smart already. I reflected on how I connect to a city and its infrastructure every day.

Here are a few examples:

City Mapper tells me how long it will take me to walk, cycle or travel around London by public transport. It tells me which train or bus to catch in real time and even lets me know about delays on the tube.

I use Google Maps when I’m lost and looking for a building. I also use it to tell me what the traffic congestion is like.

Just Park tells me where I can park.

The LNER app gives me information about train times, platform numbers and any delays.

Uber allows me to call a cab in minutes, gives me an idea of how much it will cost and then picks me up at the door.

The TOG app lets me know where I can access an office to work for the day.

Weather apps give me information about the weather wherever I’m going.

The Newcastle Airport app lets me know if my flight is on time.

If we then think about how we can connect city infrastructure to individual buildings, we can increase the benefits even further. For example, airports could manage people movement within the terminal so you can plan how long it will take you to get to your gate. If we could access people movement in tube stations we could select the quieter station.

Companies such as Great Portland Estates allow their tenants to manage the lifts and temperature in their buildings. If we connect the information within a building to that of the city there could be further benefits.

There are many companies working on smart city research. The most important question to ask is ‘why?’ What is the problem we are trying to resolve?

As we gather this information and start to apply artificial intelligence, it could provide answers to questions we had never thought of.

However, this information needs to be open source and accessible in order to encourage innovation.

As I mentioned earlier, our cities are already pretty smart. I’m sure there’s a lot more we will be able to do in the future. Our challenge is to work out how we want to interact with our cities and the value new technology can bring.

Only when we can demonstrate the ‘why?’ will smart cities become more mainstream.

We must also consider that emerging generations prefer to connect with each other through their mobile devices rather than face to face. We need to be aware of this when designing our cities but also be aware of the impact of the diminishing social interaction this causes.

Much of the work to date has been around how we move around cities. I think something for us to start to consider is how we can use some of this infrastructure and data to tackle environmental issues and how we can make cities safe for those using them.

We have made a great start with smart cities even if we don’t realise it. I think in the years ahead we will continue to build upon the concept. The more it gets taken for granted and becomes a part of society, the more successful it will be.