Street smarts for smart cities

The networks of the future will thrive or collapse like ecosystems

Now that we have smartphones we want everything to be smart.

Yet while top-down master planning has great appeal on the theoretical level, and there is no shortage of proposals that we harness new technologies to fix age-old or intrinsic challenges, evidence from fields as diverse as agriculture, finance and city planning suggests we may be misunderstanding just how remarkably complex human behaviour is.

A simple example of how noble plans can lead us astray is the U.S. Forest Service’s century-long policy of putting out forest fires as quickly as possible. This unexpectedly reduced biological resilience and transformed many forests into tinderboxes, leading to today’s mega-fires. It turns out fires are one way forest landscapes regenerate themselves.

This kind of ecosystems paradigm is producing abundant insights. Andy Haldane, a senior Bank of England economist, has suggested that the financial crisis triggered in 2007 was exacerbated by “monocrop” business models, and that allowing some lenders to fail can foster a healthier financial ecosystem.

In the world of infrastructure, digital communications can be harnessed to resources such as Big Data or millions of remote sensor chips and cut down on waste in terms of time, traffic and energy. Initiatives range from smart-parking apps in the northeast Italian city of Treviso, alerting residents to where they can leave their cars, to a sensor-enabled irrigation system in Barcelona’s public parks that is expected to pay for itself in two years thanks to water savings.

What’s not to like?
Efficiency is practically by definition a good thing. But it mustn’t exonerate us from asking the question – who decides what is really efficient, and how much is it worth to them?

E-commerce has led to impressive price savings and increased accessibility to a wide range of goods. Home delivery, often presented as free, caters to busy urban lifestyles where flexibility is increasingly an imperative. But all that convenience carries a cost. Booming door-to-door deliveries now mean that truck traffic incurs – and generates – two and a half times more urban congestion than its share of volume would imply. Local shops are being squeezed out of existence, impoverishing the city not only of handy local amenities but also reducing the number of “eyes on the street” that act as a silent police force.

To be sure, new residential buildings can be required to dedicate ground-floor space to handle deliveries, but that is an expensive proposition. Carbon taxes will likely amplify real price discovery and undermine many audacious claims.

The digital revolution, like any ecosystem, is intensely geared to feedback loops. There is no such as the “best” solution or the shortest trajectory, as it depends on what is happening at that moment in time as well as on a myriad of human moods and needs.  Some toll-road operators have sophisticated experience in concocting ingenious solutions to save time and energy. Hopefully these will shed light on how to cope with trade-offs in even vaster networks in which multiple services will have to be integrated – ranging from rental bicycles to timers for home ovens.

In situations such as the United States, where 96 percent of available jobs require a 45-minute commute from low-income suburban neighborhoods, it may be jobs, not people, that need to be made mobile. In Europe, major population centers such as Paris or London are quite different from the more diffuse territorial distributions of Italy or Germany.

In Africa, Luanda and Ouagadougou are expected to quadruple in a generation, posing urgent challenges in terms of roads and public health but also food, energy and water. In Dar es Salaam, land allocations for roads are below half their usual quota, calling out for extremely smart solutions to pre-empt sprawling slums invading precious arable land and watersheds.

In ancient Athens, those who did not participate in city life were known as idiotes. Too many idiots can erode any operational infrastructure, pointing to the need for intangible forms of planning linked to civic engagement.

Ramón Martín de Pozuelo, a smart-city expert in Barcelona, warns on the need to avoid the trap of a “tech push and not a pull.” Successful innovation will hinge on engaging a wide array of stakeholders to identify a desirable outcome.

Ecosystems are self-organizing, a quality that should be pursued in technology-driven projects.
“Smart cities” must not be gadget-driven schemes to “help good cities do dumb things faster,” says Robert Young, a professor of urban ecology at the University of Texas.
The risk exists.

It’s useful to remember there is nothing new under the sun. After all, Nikita Kruschev was touting a form of hyper-rational taxi poolls back in 1959. But it’s also the case that technology’s alleged prowess is often less than superhuman. One of the designers of Deep Blue, the computer that beat Garry Kasparov in chess, acknowledged later that the grand master had been fooled by what was in fact a glitch, overinterpreting it as part of a deeper strategy rather than due to fault coding.

The newest chess-playing machines no longer pursue the brute processing power used then but rely on learning techniques to minimize the search options they mechanically review. Learning, closely related to the concept of self-organization, is a step into the ecosystem paradigm, and underscores how a truly smart intervention has to be open-ended.

That’s a huge challenge for long-term investors at a time when any given service, product or platform is vulnerable to potentially massive disruption. So, for example, while there has been much experimentation in how to set road toll prices, the salient lesson may be that while the “user pays” mode will remain, the networks of the future will be more complex than the actuarial formulas used to date and that their value will have to be assessed in equally more complex manners.

For example, real-time price auctions for a given transport service could in theory factor in the interests of multiple residents in factors ranging from air pollution or urban noise all the way to water levels in nearby lakes used for hobby fishing and boating. The existence of a carbon tax or even distributed quotas among residents could further determine how such auctions work.

While cloud computing has earned its spurs, the next era will benefit from using all of its computational and sensor-derived information not only for central processing of inventory needs or general traffic flows, but for immediate local needs.

Flavio Bonomi, the Italian engineer who founded Nebbiolo Technologies after a long career as guru at Cisco, calls this highly intermediated and distributive cloud system “fog computing”.

That way a retail store could not just order replacement stock but even rush cashiers to their stands in short order when needed. Likewise, not all vehicle data – which will ultimately include fuel and mechanical updates as well as speed and location - needs to be sent to headquarters and most is really needed for real-time use with peers to avoid collisions.

Relevant infrastructure must, in Bonomi’s view, foster links that bridge between users – he happily calls them cultures – and must enable natural ways of socializing, as he puts it.

An ecosystems approach would revolve around key words such as synergies, environments and feedback loops rather than erstwhile terms such as capital, consumers and choice.
It’s not always obvious what the “subject” of change is.

John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, notes, plans to have on-demand networks of autonomous vehicles ready to roll within five years. Rather than Tesla’s vision of individually-owned cars whose owners can choose to rent them to others, Lyft is banking on practical advantages of fleet ownership.
Either solution paves the way for radical change in the physical environment of a city, in particular due to dramatically reduced parking needs. More than on mobility, the impact will be on what places look like, possibly reviving street life and even play spaces for children.

Such an outcome would also very likely mean that fewer people would be like the idiotes of Athens, and take on active roles in the huge informal economy made up of actual communities and their multiple, simultaneous and overlapping reciprocities – an ecosystem indeed!