An article in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal titled The Rise of the Smart City talks about the ubiquitous use of sensors in modern cities to make them safer and more user friendly. To city officials this seems like a good thing, but many people have concerns.
Here in the Twin Cities, back in 2007, the I-35W Bridge collapsed during rush hour, The bridge had a design flaw. Steel gusset plates holding the structure together were only half as thick as they were supposed to be. On top of that, the bridge had suffered from years of neglect. And on top of that, it was rush hour 43 years after it's construction. The weight of all these factors resulted in a tragic collapse which would take the lives of 13 people and seriously injure 145 others. But what if the bridge had some way of communicating with city officials. What if it could have said "my steel gusset plates need repair" or "I can't handle the weight of this much traffic"? By making the city smarter, lives could have been saved.
A lot has changed in the city since the 35W bridge was designed back in the 60's. Minneapolis now has gunshot detectors, to increase police response time to shootings. Stores are starting to use smart shelves that keep track of purchases and inventory. The new bridge that replaced the original I-35W bridge now has sensors built in to it which can detect stresses like traffic vibration, erosion, and the effect of weather conditions. Now imagine these kind of sensors everywhere, recording the number of cars on the freeway, pollution levels in the air, business transactions, monitoring everything we do.
Any time I hear about a plan for a "smart city", I suspect it will involve tracking people. What will these sensors sense? Could they violate our privacy? - Richard Stallman
You don't really need to imagine it, its happening everywhere. This is the city of the future. The smart city, a place of many improvement but also a place of many troubling privacy concerns.
But that's not really what I wanted to write about. What really caught my attention was Totty's use of the term "Smart Cities," as if the cities we had been living in were dumb. Cities are not dumb. Thriving cities exhibit a collective intelligence that's really quite amazing if you think about it.
In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson refers to cities as sophisticated data storage and retrieval systems which emerge when people live together in large groups. Though most cities have some initial planning, it is the individual decisions of tens of thousands of people that ultimately give the city its shape. People tend to group together into neighborhoods, retail outlets tend to open near other retail outlets, manufacturers tends to set up shop near other manufacturers. The whole thing just sort of falls into a coherent structure and because this grid makes sense, the city becomes, not just a place where people live but a resource they can access to do the things they need to do.