The rise of the smart city Part 4: People

The successful development of the Smart City, which we have been discussing in recent columns, depends on a number of factors, including a Smart Economy, and a Smart Environment.

Today I will look at the third of the elements that comprise a Smart City, that of People.

We have heard many predictions about how many people will be living in cities by mid-century. The forecasts range anywhere from 60% to 80% of the world’s population, but whichever you believe, the number of people involved is mind-boggling: 5 billion, 6 billion, or maybe even more.

However you view it, this urban-bound migration of people will change the way we live forever. Of course there have always been large urban conurbations throughout history. Rome became the first city of more than a million people 2,000 years ago, but never before has there been the possibility of so many mega-conurbations existing at once. By 2025, China will have more than 200 cities with more than 1 million people each, and at least 10 with at least 10 million each. Even now there are a few mega-cities or metropolitan areas, such as Chongqing, Tokyo-Yokohama and Mexico City, which exceed 30 million people. That’s roughly the same as the whole population of my own country of Canada.

So, city living will become the norm for most of the world’s people by mid-century, but what are the major issues these new city dwellers will face, and how are smart cities planning to ensure they are home to smart people?

There are really two types of cities involved when answering this question: those we could call traditional, and those we could call transitional. By traditional, I am referring to what we normally think of as a modern city, the concrete jungle beloved of crime writers. By transitional I am referring to what are often called shantytowns, which are home to millions of people around the world.

Let us start by looking at traditional cities. To ensure cities remain viable and attractive to those who live there, administrators know they must engage their residents in a two-way dialogue on the “big-picture” issues that can negatively affect how city-dwellers live. These include transport, pollution, provision and management of facilities and services. So, in the fall of 2011 New York was the site of the birth of a bold new urban experiment called the BMW Guggenheim Lab (BGL) which is both a community centre as well as a think-tank, designed to encourage urbanites tackle those “big picture’ issues and help shape their own destiny.

In fact, the BGL is designed as a travelling facility, led by innovative international teams with diverse expertise in areas such as design, technology, education, sustainability, art, science, architecture and urbanism. The goal is to visit nine major cities (New York, Berlin, Mumbai among them) over the next six years, to foster new experiments in creative and forward-thinking solutions for urban living. Three key themes will be explored, the first of them Confronting Comfort, dealing with choices on issues of individual and collective comfort, and the accompanying need for social and environmental responsibility.

The BGL experiment is still in its infancy, but is a good example of how smart people are preparing to have a bigger say in the way they live. In New York’s case those involved looked at a variety of urban issues, including: bedbug infestation, the use of bicycles, transport, sustainability, and awareness. Additionally the lab offered a number of urban-themed lectures and films, demonstrations of new technology, and games aimed at providing insight into the policy decision-making process in cities.

In fact, the BGL uses a game called Urbanology ( to help players understand how their choices in city-planning would contribute to a Future City’, and to see how it would compare to other cities. As well, the BGL uses video screens to promote dialogue, by asking viewers questions on urban policy and getting them to assume the role of urban planners. This helps participants understand the potential outcomes of their choices.

Meanwhile, shantytown residents share a whole different set of perspectives and approaches in Confronting Comfort.

Living in a shantytown comes with a daunting list of obstacles to be overcome, not least because of the lack of clean water, power and proper sanitation.

However, the reason people are living there in the first place is that they are pursuing something better, usually escaping from rural poverty, and strongly focused on improving their lot in life. What this means is that shantytown dwellers are among the most resourceful, creative, innovative, industrious and hard-working people on the planet. Everybody works, and everything has a potential for use or re-use, leading to vast recycling enterprises, way beyond the scope of normal cities.

A good example of this is Mumbai, a city of around 17 million inhabitants, around 50% of whom live in shantytowns, and yet it accounts for around 15% of India’s gross domestic product. The inhabitants provide a two-way conduit for commerce, importing huge amounts of food and crops, and exporting huge amounts of goods and services, while providing a vast recycling service to their host city (Dharavi, the biggest slum in Mumbai, has 4,000 recycling units alone). When the BGL visits Mumbai, it is uncertain which side will be teaching the other, but you can certainly expect something interesting to come out of that meeting.

The people who live in both traditional and transitional environments may differ widely in the types of urban problems they face, and in the solutions they apply, but both are acting in response to one shared conviction: that if they want to make their urban lives better, they need to take the responsibility for doing so into their own hands.


Article from Bangkok Post