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.