In the beginning, large technology companies were marketing the idea of the smart city as one with a centralised operating system that could vastly improve efficiency. Since then, the idea has evolved significantly. Smart cities are now much more about the people who live in them and the public-private collaborations that develop citizen services. In fact, a broader term for it might be something like what Singapore has developed: a “smart nation” supported by a foundation of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). Increasingly, we’re seeing the notion of “smart” as encompassing human-centricity, empathy and interdisciplinary approaches.
In Dubai, for example, there are experimental districts where they’re piloting driverless cars and the use of AI and IoT. But their core mantra is the “happiness agenda”. It’s their way of saying, “We place happiness at the centre of the smart city experience.”
In Singapore’s emerging new townships, we see smart urban design. Homes will have sensors in them, so if an elderly person falls, the carpet will immediately inform a doctor. The districts will be designed in such a way that the elderly are completely integrated into the vibrancy of everyday city life. Their doors will open to playgrounds and malls. The environment will be car-lite, with walkways and bike paths. There will be innovation labs, so that people can tinker with technologies. The smart city will be a lifestyle.
“What we need is a new social contract that we can agree upon. But I do believe we can put our values into the AI systems that we develop and build a stronger city”
Smart technology will impact developing cities too. Cities attract people by providing good healthcare, education and basic infrastructure. And in the past, poorer cities couldn’t really compete. But because of digital services, there’s an opportunity for so-called second-tier and third-tier cities to also have access to some things that were not previously possible. For example, the traditional way of providing healthcare was to build hospitals, and to have doctors. That’s still really important, but in a smart city, you also serve people through telemedicine. Over time, people can wear sensors and do regular check-ups from their homes.
In all this rapid disruption, there’s a fear of AI taking over jobs prevalent in economically developed societies. But in developing countries, there’s a lot of optimism. They see it as an opportunity to leapfrog and have social mobility for their children. Of course, privacy is a huge concern when you deal with so much data. What we need is a new social contract that we can agree upon. But I do believe we can put our values into the AI systems that we develop and build a stronger city together.
– ILLUSTRATION BY STUART PATIENCE
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.