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Viewpoint | Smart cities need human factor

Successful smart technology that underpins the design of smart cities should be reliable, convenient, labour-saving, and ultimately cater to people’s wants and needs.

Andrew crudgington cropped

Andrew crudgington cropped

Andrew Crudgington

It sounds simple and obvious but industry and policymakers face a challenge in both responding to and managing people’s expectations of change and technology.

Too often, we talk about smart cities as though they are already well established in the public imagination. They are not. We could do a better job of educating people about what smart cities are and how they can transform people’s lives.

On the other hand, industry and policymakers have a tendency to expect people to adapt to smart infrastructure when it should be the other way around. As Abu Dhabi’s (arguably) failed Masdar smart city in Abu Dhabi shows, you have to build with and not against the grain of human nature.

Tricky balance

In practice, there is a tricky balance between planning for predicted change and disruption, while also understanding fundamental human behaviour.

It would be a risk to take current consumer lifestyles as writ. This will likely evolve over the next 10 to 20 years, for example to accommodate the arrival of driverless cars on our streets or increasingly flexible working patterns.

Technological evolution could even lead to hollowed-out city centres, where retail spaces become mere shop windows where the public can view items to purchase and have them delivered to their homes.

Physical places

But there are aspects to the way we live that will remain the same, at least within a time span of only 20 years. While technology has changed social interactions to a degree, it may be that the centre of cities will always be a physical place for people to meet.

We need to recognise that there are different speeds to change. Some, like Über, are rapid and disruptive but others – particularly the infrastructure sector – will take far longer, and are cumulative.

However much cities should and will change, their success depends entirely on whether they enable people to live the way they want.

Government action

Government has the power to make or break smart cities. Too much of a “bottom-up” approach can result in a lack of strategic coherence, while taking a “top down” approach can stifle innovation. Government’s role is to change conditions to encourage, rather than dictate, technological disruption.

Procurement is one major government lever, ensuring that planning tenders focus on making cities smart and ensuring efficiency of services for citizens.

Whatever the course of action, policymakers must remember to put people at the heart of their decision-making if they are to achieve the desired result.

Ultimately, the success or failure of smart cities depends on our ability to integrate the human, digital and physical factors, and the importance of understanding the value of these.

Civil engineering has always been about shaping the world for the benefit of society. We need to apply this approach to the design of smart cities and truly improve quality of life for the next generation.

For more discussion on smart cities, click here

  • Andrew Crudgington is the ICE’s  director of external affairs and strategy

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