Smart Cities: creating the cyberville we want?

| Michaela Nesvarova , Rense Kuipers

More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and by 2030 this number will increase to about 5 billion people. Urbanization is happening on a massive scale, larger than ever before, bringing huge social, economic and environmental challenges. To ensure cities remain livable, we need ‘smart’ solutions. Hence, we need to transform our current cities into even smarter cities. How can we do that?

Photo by: Shutterstock & Rikkert Harink

Let’s forget about the buzzword ‘smart cities’. In this article we explore the basic components we need for this urban transformation by highlighting its four main building blocks: the tangible, the invisible, the organized and the human city. And we want to tell you a story about what life in a smart city of the future might look like…


‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty…’ The morning light and the music wake you up. It's a different song every day, because Alexa has analysed your sleeping pattern and concluded that you wake up faster this way. You open your eyes. The window blinds have been opened, the bedside lamp turned on. Your apartment knows you ought to get up and get ready for work. You vaguely remember a loud ringing of an alarm clock from your childhood and are glad it's far gone.

You take a few short steps into the shower. It turns on automatically, there are sensors in the doors. The water temperature is instantly perfect. Perfect for you, that is. You enjoy the hot water, but soon the beeping starts. A warning, reminding you that ‘You've been here for almost five minutes. Responsible water consumption, remember?!’ Yes, you know. You agreed to this and set up the measuring device yourself. You stick to your usual shower time. You could decide not to, but you know that the coffee machine has already switched on. You put on the clothes Alexa suggested based on the most recent weather report. Do you really want to be wearing the grey shirt today? Why not, after all. It's easier this way, efficient.

You follow the smell of coffee into the kitchen. It's much smaller than your parents' kitchen used to be. Much sleeker, too. All appliances are powered by electricity generated here in the building. Bless the new solar panels. The idea of gas and open flame in the middle of your apartment seems rather absurd nowadays. You walk to the fridge and look over the daily recommendations on its screen. You should definitely eat the strawberry yoghurt, it will expire otherwise. The fridge also kindly suggests that you take the last apple, it will add new ones onto the shopping list. Yes, that will do. Like most things inside your fridge, the apple comes from the building’s rooftop garden. Think globally, act locally.

You squeeze by the table to get to the sofa in the seating area. You don't really like calling it a living room, it feels like playing fast and loose with the word "room", but it's still your favourite area of the apartment. The TV is not too large, the little couch is just right, and the view over the city's green rooftops is phenomenal.

Time to leave for work. No need to bring keys. Everything unlocks once it sees your lovely face, even the cars use facial recognition. Speaking of which, it's a bit chilly outside today, so you are hoping one of the self-driving city cars will be available. Shared property has many advantages, no insurance or maintenance costs for you, but it can be hard to predict if you will be able to get your share that day. Unless you pay premium, of course. There are always the bikes, though. But you don't have to paddle this morning. Two of the mini automobiles are standing down the street. People get out of one, you signal, the car spots you and rushes to pick you up.

You hop in and ask the vehicle to take you to the office. You are still a little hungry and consider stopping by the bakery on the way, but the car turns left and you notice it's not taking its usual route due to possible heavy traffic on the main street. You could easily override this decision and change the route, but you know the system would ask you for a reason - just because it aims to adjust to your preferences in the future - and providing an explanation such as ‘I have a hankering for a croissant’ might confuse the databank. It might even end up on the table of the Chief Information Officer of the city. You smile at that thought and look at the Google Maps on the display again.

The car is taking you through the ‘old town’. You leave the green streets of your neighbourhood, lined with trees and water streams, to enter what the city used to be. This part is still being reconstructed. Most of the houses are being demolished, both the overground and underground infrastructure ripped out and replaced. It's supposedly the easiest way, as evidenced by the ‘new town’, where you live. It used to look just like this - family houses, private gardens and garages, no anti-floods systems - until one very unfortunate gas leak gave it a clean slate.

Just another day in the office. You work sitting down or standing up, depending on what the sensors in your chair deem best at the moment. Your lunch gets delivered to your desk by Clyde, the autonomous robot the company bought. Today you are having a quinoa salad with steamed broccoli and a smoothie on the side. Fresh and nutritious, as always. At the end of the day, you call for a car via the app and share the ride with a co-worker, seeing that you both need to stop by the City Hall and discuss your opinion on the plans for a new waste recycling system with the local government representatives.

After the meeting you decide to walk home, which also makes your wristwatch happy, because you are finally getting the exercise it has been asking you for all day long. The sun has already set and the streets seem cold and dark, even though the clever lights turn on as you approach them. Once you get home, Alexa senses you look tired and offers to cheer you up with some leftover ice-cream. It's a nice gesture, but you'd rather have a croissant. You spend the rest of the evening in your VR gaming world, playing a friendly battle with your cousin. As the midnight approaches, both your watch and Alexa remind you that you need to get up early in the morning, and so you forget about watching the latest episode of your favourite show. You say ‘good night’, the blinds close, the lamp is turned off. And not only yours. The city sleeps. How smart. 


The main building blocks

The tangible city

The tangible city includes the things we can ‘touch’. Think of our buildings, roads, water systems. We often take this hardware for granted and use it daily without giving it a second thought. Yet the infrastructures are unescapably there. They are the silent servants of society. The future is often presented as high-tech dots on the horizon, like fully functional self-driving cars, hyperloops and solar paneled roofs. However, before we can make everything faster, better, stronger and – most of all – smarter, meet the elephant that’s blocking the way towards a smarter tangible city: the Global Infrastructure Gap.

According to a 2014 report from the World Economic Forum, the United States alone have an infrastructural gap of 3.7 trillion dollars annually. UT professor André Dorée adds that the gap between supply and demand doesn’t apply exclusively to the US. ‘It’s an issue in the Netherlands also. Not only regarding the above ground infrastructure, but also below. In the Netherlands alone we have a total of more than two million kilometers of cables and pipes below our surface, worth hundreds of billions. And most of the today’s Dutch infrastructure was built after the Second World War, thus nearing the end of its lifespan. One of the major challenges we have to overcome to create smarter cities, is finding ways to overhaul networks that move beyond their lifespan in a smart way.’

‘We cannot overcome our current challenges if we keep formulating new ones’

Dorée knows that if that doesn’t happen, things can get disastrous. Be it on a small scale – like gas leaks – or on a larger scale, like a huge water main burst which meant the Amsterdam based VU Medical Centre needed to evacuate all its patients a few years ago. The professor at the faculty of Engineering Technology believes that a ‘minimally invasive surgery’ approach to civil engineering can help us to improve our below ground infrastructure. Forget green fields and clear sky blue prints. ‘The tangible city is already crowded with hardware, copes with a dense population, provides limited space, and systemic shortage of time and money for projects. Focus is required. More often than not, we don’t even have a good overview of the subterranean infrastructure. And how can you fix something if you don’t even know what’s there? To move forward we have to locate potential problems and find weak spots. Which requires extensive mapping of everything we have below ground.’

The professor sees a major role for civil engineers to create smarter, more livable cities. ‘It’s about finding technology that enables transitions. There are a lot of holes and gaps – not even in a literal sense, but also in the knowledge we have of our infrastructure. Developing smarter technologies can help us in making conscious decisions about uncharted territory. If we want to improve our cities, it starts with taking a step back and rethink the way we look at our assets. We cannot overcome our current challenges if we keep formulating new ones.’


The invisible city

Citizens produce data. Probably more often than not without even knowing so. That’s where the invisible city comes into play. Who collects your data? How? What happens with the information stream we call big data? And the question that is on everyone’s mind: is my privacy at stake? When cities become more digitalized, there’s no way you can get around data collection. And no way you won’t notice the invisible impact it has on you as a citizen.

‘Imagine a city as a human body,’ says professor Boudewijn Haverkort of the EEMCS faculty. ‘If you want to know what’s going on around you, you have to use your senses. Be it by seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting or feeling. The same concept applies to a city: the better you sense what’s going on, the better you can respond to changes. Better yet, the better you can change something to improve the living, breathing organism that a smart city is.’

‘If you want to know what’s going on around you, you have to use your senses’

Haverkort thinks that it’s possible to put sensors on everything. ‘And it’s a growing movement. Think of Wi-Fi trackers, advanced face recognition software, even sensors in your own body to monitor your vital functions. Your public transport behavior is measurable, the same goes for your private transport behavior, when you use Google Maps.’

‘Data is just data,’ according to the professor of Design and Analysis of Communication Systems. ‘It comes down to how we use the collected data. Ideally you use it to improve the quality of life of people and thereby also the livability in a city.’ As an example, Haverkort names the goal of reducing emission fuels. ‘One of the ways to do that is to get an insight into the way we use different modes of transport. No one really likes public transport, but there is a way to make it less of a hassle. If you have insight into the data of people’s behavior, a bus could for instance take shortcuts along the way. Take it a step further and imagine a city in which car ownership isn’t necessary. When people share cars, you could rapidly decrease traffic, congestion and thereby emission.’

Now, who would collect and own that data? Haverkort states that two concepts are of paramount importance: security and privacy. ‘It’s not necessarily a trade-off between the two of them, if you take the right measures. Security is about others not overlooking what you’re doing and it comes at a price. Privacy is about what you want to tell about yourself. I think it’s really important that before data could be collected, people should have the option to opt-out. That they are in control of what they do or do not share. In the end, data is still just invisible data. But when data gets combined, it can get a lot less harmless.’


The organized city

Who governs the cities of the future? Who makes sure that daily life doesn’t come to a complete standstill? Who makes the decisions that should be best for you as a citizen? The organized smart city is an intricate web of all kinds of parties collaborating: the government, businesses, people and – last but not least – academia. The real challenge in the organized city is how those parties can benefit from each other.

Marcel Boogers, professor in Innovation and Regional Governance, believes the government has two key tasks to channel the transition to smarter cities: facilitating and regulating. ‘You see all kinds of major and extremely powerful corporations getting more control over our lives. For governments it is hard to pull the brake on that movement. So when it comes to big data that’s being collected by companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, maybe it’s best for governments to not try to beat them, but join them. Nowadays, Google probably knows more about you than your own government. So why not use it to the advantage of you and your inhabitants?’

‘Google probably knows more about you than your own government’

Boogers agrees with his colleague Haverkort that establishing the position of a Chief Information Officer in each municipality should become a common practice. He continues on Haverkort’s example: ‘Some data should be protected by the government. But other data from companies could be very well used. Why not use Google Maps data to get a clearer picture of traffic flow? It already works quite well. And smart algorithms can help the police to predict where and when crime will be more likely to happen. Data can help the government in its decision making process.’

There are definitely problems with too much privatization, professor André Dorée adds to Boogers’ remarks. ‘Transitioning to a smarter city isn’t only a technological challenge, but also an organizational one. Coordination of the growing number of private utility companies is plagued by all kinds of hold-ups. The more parties involved, the more they behave strategically, the more processes and more uncertainty it will lead to. Privatization in the tangible city created a no man’s land, absence of clear problem ownership and the risk of stalemate.’

It’s not only about problem ownership, but also ownership in itself, Boogers believes. ‘Data will rule everything and everyone’s lives? No, I don’t buy the idea of us moving towards a technocracy. The internet has created a more level playing field when it comes to information access. Nowadays everyone can be an expert. And I do believe that politicians and local governments can use technology more to engage with people, share information and create policies. Ultimately, it’s still people who make the decisions. Not technology.’


The human city

No city can exist without its inhabitants. They are what truly make a society function. Having all kinds of technology affecting our daily lives in a smart city, are we losing touch of the human factor or not? In the end, it’s smart citizens who make a city smarter. Let’s explore the impact and implications of digitalization on people.

According to philosopher Michael Nagenborg, technology isn’t really tailor-made for humans. ‘A technical system doesn’t really recognize us as an individual. The system works by its own built-in rules and codes. And it sees the world differently than we do.’ That’s one of the reasons that Nagenborg thinks that a technology push alone doesn’t make a city or society smarter. ‘But it does require us to think of the desirable qualities a smarter city should have. To keep it livable, enjoyable and meaningful to be part of such a society.’

Nagenborg believes it’s an interplay between both worlds. ‘It’s important to understand what difference a new technology makes. For example, drones could replace police helicopters for surveillance purposes. However, technically it’s quite easy to have drones surveilling 24 hours a day in contrast to a police helicopter. The real challenge is to anticipate what difference a technology will make. Before we have it, we don’t know how it works and how it will affect us. Hence, we need to experiment with new technologies to understand what they mean to us.’

‘Knowing is half the battle towards becoming a smarter society’

There are also human factors in which we do need to make a stance, Nagenborg believes. Especially since digitalization generally creates more data. ‘Too often, data is mistaken as facts. Data is never neutral and its acquisition and use rely on interpretation. Ownership of data is an issue, too. As an example, the data coming from the Wi-Fi trackers in the city of Enschede is in the hands of the private company that runs them. You see these growing pains all over the place in cities that become smarter. It’s the problem of multiple hands, who may not even have bad intentions with the data.’

Nagenborg sees a specific risk in the distributed nature of data collection and handling. ‘Ironically, a benevolent big brother might be a easier to control than an infinite number of small parties collecting data for themselves. And then the trust factor comes in. I believe transparency is the start of trust. It starts with people knowing what’s going on around them and who’s doing it. Knowing is half the battle towards becoming a smarter society.’

Experts who contributed to the article

  • André Dorée, Professor of Market- & Organization Dynamics in Construction Industry, ET Faculty
  • Boudewijn Haverkort, Professor of Design and Analysis of Communication Systems, EEMCS Faculty
  • Marcel Boogers, Professor of Innovation and Regional Governance, BMS Faculty
  • Michael Nagenborg, Assistant professor, Philosophy of Technology, BMS Faculty
  • Maya van den Berg, Smart Cities Coordinator, BMS Faculty
  • Maarten van Steen, Scientific Director of the Digital Society Institute, EEMCS Faculty

You can also find this article in our latest Science & Technology Magazine. Look at it online or grab a printed copy on the campus. 

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