The smart city: plugging in to better urban living

The Programmable City Project at NUI Maynooth aims to deliver services and information systems for the ‘smart city’

Be careful what you say over social media in Chicago. Your casual comments could be scrutinised using "sentiment analysis" and you may attract a visit from the local police force.

This isn’t a film script – it is actually happening in Chicago right now, says Adam Greenfield of the London School of Economics. “They sample social media using sentiment analysis in an attempt to see if they can use policing resources that can respond to a crime even before it happens,” he says. If nothing else, it lets people know they are regularly being monitored as a way to reduce criminality.

This represents one scenario of what it might mean to live in a "smart city", a dystopian view where technology is utilised to diminish personal freedoms. The more positive aspects were also explored at a conference in NUI Maynooth this week, with researchers discussing what life might be like in a smart city.

What is the smart city?
The term has been around for many years, yet there are many views on what it means, suggests conference organiser Prof Rob Kitchin, director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth.


Prof Kitchin recently received a €2.3 million European Research Council advanced researcher award, which he is using to fund the Programmable City Project at the university. It will employ 10 researchers and almost as many postdoctoral fellows and PhD students to deliver services and information systems for the smart city.

The conference was held to launch the project, with Minister of State for research Seán Sherlock officiating at the event.

There are two schools of thought on what the smart city would deliver, says Prof Kitchin. One relates to running the city as an entity, “having an instrumented city, big-data embedding of ICT [information and computer technology], data collection and use to monitor and regulate the city”, he says. “The other school is much broader. It includes economic and regional development, planning, building a creative city and creating smart citizens. I am interested in both,” he says.

There is a wide separation between what city managers might need and what might interest consumers, but their paths cross in certain areas. Making more efficient use of energy and water resources is an example, he says. Information gleaned from a consumer’s regular usage could point to ways that savings could be made, serving the consumer and the city. Transport is another area of interest. “You would pass a sign telling when the train or bus is due. It helps you to be more mobile and flexible in your own planning,” says Kitchin.

The development work needed to deliver a smart city is under way around the world. The Maynooth conference heard about consumer services being developed in Boston. One makes it easier for parents to allow their children to walk to school, while another service, provided as an app, maps out the city’s green areas and how to get to them.

Projects under way
The conference also heard from the postdoc and PhD researchers and their projects under study via the Programmable City Project. Alan Moore is trying to understand what makes Dublin so attractive to software and ICT companies in the hope of encouraging more of them to set up here. Dr Leighton Evans is looking at how work practices have changed in offices and supermarkets, trying to assess how ICT has altered the nature of work.

Dr Gavin McArdle presented his efforts to produce a Dublin Dashboard, an access point for urban dwellers to draw down near real-time information about a wide range of subjects. You could look up unemployment levels or use "fix my street" which would allow the user to alert the city council about potholes that need fixing or unacceptable graffiti. Another feature, "near to me", would let the user know how far away the nearest pharmacy or restaurant or bus stop is and gives directions. Another feature would be to let you know average speeds on the M50 or any other main route, to help users avoid traffic congestion.

Prof Kitchin acknowledges there are drawbacks to the smart city approach, for example system attacks by hackers. Haifa in Israel had its transport management system knocked out in this way, and there have been repeated attacks on big utilities there, he says.

Then there is the risk of profiteering by companies that have made us dependent on their systems. “You give control to companies, outsourcing services, but you become dependent and have to pay or your city won’t work any more,” he says.


The real problem with the notion of a smart city is it has nothing to do with cities, says Adam Greenfield, senior urban fellow at LSE Cities, a centre of the London school of economics. "It is a terrain, it is a market. The people who invented the idea of the smart city don't like cities and don't live in them."

Greenfield takes a jaundiced view of the smart city movement, arguing that it is a top-down approach, with technology companies and administrators determining what services are important and these then being imposed on those living in the city. “It is watchfulness from above, consecrated to administrators,” he argues. “Spontaneous order comes from below, not above.”

He believes that the big information and computer technology companies are the originators of the idea and the ones driving its implementation. They represent emergent technologies that will influence how we live everyday life, but Greenfield is concerned about what is being offered. “It should not surprise us that it is computer giants that sniffed the opportunity. They want to shrink-wrap it even before we understand what it is, to sell back the technology they have always sold us but wrapped up as smart city.”

This makes him shy away from the name adopted for it. “I don’t use the terminology at all: it is sufficiently polluted that you introduce into the dialogue stuff I don’t hold truck with,” says Greenfield. If he had to use a term it would be “networked urbanism”. It is not that he is against the use of ICT to improve quality of life. “If they do good things for people, [that is] perfectly valid,” he says. “The technology can play a role in that but not as currently being developed.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.