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THINKING CITIES Smart technology


a very wide surrounding catchment area – a proud claim which not all its peers can make – but do we really need Big Data to achieve something similar elsewhere? The answer is probably not.


MONOLITHIC SYSTEMS We need also to challenge the idea that bigger is somehow better or best. Overarching smart city concepts have at their heart some form of huge data ‘engine’ shared by multiple agencies which in times past would have existed in splen- did isolation. Jurisdictional and political issues aside, the concept is a fine one but once examined in detail there are again major issues. At a straightforward engineering level, big systems connote big project management and long delivery times. In turn, the risk is increased of obsolescence at the point of service entry. Smaller systems are generally more easily deployable and can achieve many of the intended results of their bigger counterparts at a fraction of the cost and logistical headaches. An alternative is to somehow increase available band-


widths and numbers of data nodes and so encourage inno- vation at a smaller level but it must also be recognised that our major urban settlements are about much more than just collection and analysis of terrabytes of data, however sophisticated that process may be; they are about improving living standards, offering educational and employment pros- pects, dealing with social factors and satisfying the human condition. Not all of the answers to those issues can be found in data


and that gives rise to a discussion of just how smart a city’s subsystems need be. We can chase Holy Grails forever but perhaps instead we should draw lines in the sand and set realistic goals. If we do that, we stand a far greater chance of deploying effective solutions rather than engineers’ toys. Again, we need to attack the hype and force some decisions. This isn’t always easy, especially when an engineered solu- tion holds out the prospect of somehow increasing safety. Politically, refusal then becomes very difficult. Courage and resolution are needed.


PROMOTING PRAGMATISM Over the last decade or so, many things in life have changed. Not everything has improved. Congestion, for example, is a perennial problem and as more and more stakeholders have become involved in decision-making we have reached a point where some of our cities are practically ungovernable. On the other hand, our cities have become more democratic and there is a greater consciousness of the quality of life. But we need to be realistic. When people ask how much can change in a decade, it’s too easy to forget that 10 years is only two leg- islative periods. If we think about 20 years out, then there’s a greater chance of as-yet barely recognised disruptions having an effect, such as energy prices and mass migration. Traffic


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Transport for London already successfully manages its networks with existing-generation data systems – can ‘Big Data’ truly be more successful, or is it an expensive risk?


signalling and control clearly won’t solve all of this but such possibilities underline the need for carefully orchestrated urban planning. Dealing with congestion is a good exam- ple: mobility is vital to cities’ prosperity but gridlock is an economic liability and significantly degrades quality of life. Travellers need to be encouraged to think more about their travel habits. Existing congestion charging solutions have proven to be very effective tools for effecting behavioural change and modal shift, and are more than capable of satisfy- ing pretty much any traffic management aim that a munici- pality may conceive of. Such solutions, when one considers low access and low emission zones, are already deployed in their hundreds and can vary considerably in size and com- plexity. They can range from a relatively simple system based on licence plate recognition that is designed to govern just a few streets or a small urban area up to a sophisticated, fully featured system covering a whole city. The point is that the technology is available now, and it


thinkinghighways.com Vol 8 No 3 Europe/Rest of the World


“Smaller systems are more easily deployable and can achieve many of the results of their bigger counterparts”


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