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It’s one of the most provocative issues on the planet right now – the opportunities and threats that come from sophisticated data capture and the Internet of things. As Adam Beck argues, credit companies have been taking our data for four decades, so maybe it’s time to look at the huge positives on offer, especially if we want to tackle climate change.

A negative narrative around smart cities has emerged in recent months.

In just the last few weeks, Wired has advised the City of Toronto to tread cautiously as it sidles up to Sidewalk Labs, a spin off from Google’s parent company Alphabet. As the tech goliath sucks up a constant stream of information on traffic flow, noise and pollution levels, air quality and energy use, it will take over our lives, Wired warns.

The Atlantic paints a portrait of a future in which the “Gorgon Stare” – a sphere of nine surveillance cameras mounted on an aerial drone – records everything in sight.

Even The Fifth Estate got in on the act recently, quoting a newspaper item that suggested Google was working on “envisioning technologies that would upload human minds into cyberspace”.

The undercurrent from the chorus of naysayers is clear. The tech titans are taking over. And in a world where data is the deity, our privacy and security will be the first casualties.

It’s true that technology companies have moved into the city-building space. Google’s transformation of 12 acres along Toronto’s waterfront is just one project. Bill Gates is investing $80 million to build a smart city in Arizona. Facebook is building its own town, complete with 1500 units, to help its employees with the high cost of housing in Silicon Valley.

We will watch all these stories with interest, and no doubt there will be plenty of people sitting on the sidelines throwing stones.

But for every scary story of privacy lost and security compromised, there’s dozens more inspiring stories of how a data-driven world can make life better for people – and not just those lucky enough to afford the latest iPhone.

Take IBM Watson, an advanced cognitive technology for business, that is now supporting people recovering from substance addictions. By working with IBM Watson, Austin-based MAP Health Management has access to real-time data to better predict and prevent incidence of relapse. MAP works with 50,000 people a year, and says this data-driven approach will save money and countless lives.

Or consider how city authorities are using SAS Analytics to protect at risk-children. By integrating data from a variety of sources, such as criminal justice and public health databases, child protection workers can be alerted to changes in a child’s life that could indicate increased risk – for example emergency calls from the child’s home, arrest of family members or school absences. Case workers can then bring help to the helpless.

In several cities, traditional surveillance cameras and sensors not only detect rubbish bin levels but human movements, or lack of, particularly in homeless people. This isn’t about Big Brother watching, but about directing resources to those in most need. Infrequent visual observation and second-hand observations are now being replaced by real-time factual data.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Seeing AI app is helping low vision people by narrating the world around them. This free program uses artificial intelligence to recognise objects, people and text via a phone or tablet’s camera and then describes them to the user. People can read currencies, recognise handwriting, read out a menu in a restaurant, or describe people’s facial characteristics.

These are the smart cities stories nobody tells.

And the solutions sitting behind these transformational stories are the ones we need to embrace, now.

Negativity won’t solve climate change, nor will old systems thinking

The negative narrative about technology distracts us from our real challenges – how we address runaway climate change, raise millions of people out of poverty while accommodating a rapidly escalating population, and deliver affordable housing in our burgeoning cities.

These problems won’t be solved with the same thinking that created them in the first place. And we don’t have the luxury of time. We can’t sit on cruise control for the next 50 years and solve our urban problems.

We need to take tactical action today – and that means trialling new ideas and solutions, testing and tweaking, failing fast, moving on quickly, scaling up – and using the data we collect and the insights we gain to create better places.

The Internet of Things may freak some people out, but it might also be extremely useful

The Internet of Things – those sensors, data gatherers and analytics platforms – can collect data on everything in real time. And yes, this may freak some people out. It will create cause for concern. There will be hacks, breaches and even major failures.

But we are trying to change the world, for the better, in a period of time when uncertainty is normal, and while a climate crisis runs away from us, among other significant challenges.

We are developing smart cities standards and procedures on privacy, security ownership and the like where there may be vulnerabilities.

As these standards are more widely adopted, we will learn and improve. But let’s start, and ensure we have the right safeguards from the get-go, ask the risk questions on behalf of the public benefit and embrace the quality standards we have.

But right now, we need to learn to love technology and data, and the benefits they can bring to  the liveability, workability and sustainability of our cities and communities. And this demands our focus on the love, and not the hate.

Government, you’re in the driver’s seat

For those in government troubled by the perception that the tech giants are taking over, you are in the driver’s seat. Set your rules, be clear on your expectations to the private sector and ask the right questions. Stick to your goals, and smart cities becomes a lot easier. The evidence is clear – the city that thinks ahead, stays ahead.

You need to make smart cities work for you, which, to be clear, is the point of smart cities – technology and data for good.

Smart cities has a strong track record of transforming our lives for the better. Smart cities are for everyone, not the few. Embrace the opportunities and tell the positive stories.

Adam Beck is executive director of Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand.

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  1. Adam

    You raise a number of good points, but are governments really in control or are they one of the management team?

    Governments in democratic countries don’t have access to all the information about their cities as it is spread across private industry, education, individuals, health bodies, sport bodies and of course the silos of government to name a few.

    A smart city in my view is one that make decisions based on fact (data) more than emotion, but there would be few of these in the modern world, if you doubt this just tune into any of the government bodies broadcasting there decision making meetings.

    Governments are also struggling to stay in front of the digital world when it comes to governance.

    Getting the governance balance right is a very tricky business, get it too low and too much information is released, get it too high and everything slows and governance costs blow out.

    We are all in uncharted waters, watching out for rocks, reefs and of course the sharks, but to really move to smart cities making use of the resources available to us the waters must be charted by more than just governments, reefs and rocks need to be identified and marked, sharks need to be not destroyed but managed.

    1. Well said, Jim. It is certainly interesting, and exciting times that present opportunities if we take an informed approach to smart cities. Thank you for your comments. Adam

  2. Adam, a great article and a great reminder that action is better than inaction in addressing big issues.
    Microsoft is indeed a good exemplar -was reading through their ‘Inclusive Toolkit Manual’ and to me ‘techno-fear’ (shades of Mary Shelley?) is unwarranted – their toolkit places human-centred design methods to the fore, and for everyone. Inclusive design methods really do promote a ‘solve for one, extend to many’ solutions outcome.
    Pointedly – one of the activities in their inclusive design toolkit is titled ‘Get Orientated – Computer Trust’ , with the purpose “to unearth why humans trust and mistrust interactions with technology.”

    1. Thanks for the comments Nicholas, and I love your concept of ‘techno’fear’, which if course we need to acknowledge will continue to exist, and that we need to work to ensure we communicate smart cities in a clear and articulate way. Adam

  3. Adam, Great article promoting the benefits of the Smart Cities agenda.

    All the power to you and I am a big fan.

    Unfortunately many of our sustainability tools and government regulations are let down because of poor governance, enforced regular monitoring and compliance settings with inadequate funding support. The community rightly becomes jaded and cynical (our recycling crisis, building codes, energy standards etc).

    You mentioned privacy and security as key challenges so how is the Smart Cities agenda proposing to address this issue (based on the above) when we know big data is constantly being hacked and abused?

    1. Thanks Barton. Privacy and security is at the heart of much of the smart cities investments being advanced, and we are always improving this through the adoption of best practice standards, having protocols in place, and communicating regularly with consumers. Like any change agenda, our effectiveness improves over time, and trust is further built. Best regards, Adam