The future of cities: from social sciences to data standards

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The “city of tomorrow” has been an object of fascination throughout history for artists, futurists and architects.

As the centre of rapid change, cities are commonly used to imagine how society will be influenced by new technologies. The design archetypes are numerous: the floating city; the bubble city; the space city; the vertical city; and, more recently in the era of environmental awareness, the eco city.

While helpful as a way to expand the limits of design and technology, most visions for the city of the future have not emerged. The failure of eco cities is the latest example.

A decade ago, the Chinese government and international architects partnered to execute ambitious plans for zero-waste communities run entirely on renewable energy. But many of the projects never materialized because of technical delays, exorbitant costs and lack of demand.

“Some of the eco cities were too utopian or overambitious in terms of how quickly technology can change or get integrated,” said Constantine Kontokosta, director of academics at the New York University Center for Urban Science and Progress, who followed the projects closely.

The planned eco city of Dongtan near Shanghai has been shelved for now.
The planned eco city of Dongtan near Shanghai has been shelved for now.

The failures, said Kontokosta, stemmed from designing giant cities from scratch – a chronic problem in China that has plagued all kinds of new community development projects.

“What’s been forgotten in the discussions around smart cities is the understanding of social dynamics and how important they are to how cities function,” he said.

Today, another term has come to dominate urban futurism: the connected city.

Interchangeably referred to as the “networked city” or the “smart city,” the connected urban environment is less about redesigning gigantic futuristic cities from the ground-up, and more about creating intelligence from the inside-out.

Experts believe it's the most accurate way to describe how cities are evolving alongside technology. And it’s actually being implemented by some of the biggest companies in the world – not just imagined by dreamers.

“The best success we’ve seen is where data is used to support city goals and objectives to make a community run better,” said Kontokosta.

We may not have cities in the clouds. But the urban environment is now enveloped in a broad spectrum of high-resolution data and networking technologies – from GPS to smart meters to building management systems – creating a virtual cloud suited for new applications.

The big challenge today, says Mark Fox, a smart cities expert with the University of Toronto, is how to manage all that information.

“There’s already huge amounts of data, and we are only just developing the capacity to analyze it to understand how a city is performing,” said Fox, who is a senior fellow at the Global Cities Institute at U of T.

Creating simpler, elegant systems designed to monitor the urban environment requires something very complicated: a standard way of assessing that data.

Fox and his colleagues at U of T have been developing an international standardized methodology for gauging performance in 17 areas, including sustainability, energy, education and basic city services. Without a common set of metrics, cities and companies will have a hard time understanding their performance, said Fox.

“We need very specific definitions,” he said. “We need to imagine a world when all the information about cities is published in a common way. We need to automate city analysis.”

The project is called the Global City Indicators Facility. It includes a network of 250 cities around the world and has resulted in the first ISO standard for cities to measure social, environmental and economic performance. The organization is working with Toronto to adopt the methodology for assessing smart city pilots.

Assuming the standard is adopted by more cities, software providers and hardware producers, the bigger challenge will be how to effectively use it to provide better services in the urban environment. And on that front, Fox is adamant we need a “citizen-centric” approach.

“Traditionally, cities have taken a city-centered view of how they offer services,” said Fox. But with a growing range of third parties connecting streetlights, energy and water infrastructure, and transportation systems, cities need to view themselves as brokers of information, not the only service provider in town.

What does that mean, exactly?

This human-centric approach has spawned a whole new field of research called urban informatics. It applies computer science, social science, physics and statistical analysis to understanding how to make cities more efficient and livable – with the goal of understanding how people interact with the urban environment.

"Although we've been talking about smart cities for a long time, the field [of urban informatics] is still quite new and many of the techniques are just now being applied in an urban context," said Kontokosta, who teaches urban informatics and consults on projects.

A rendering of the Hudson Yards development.

One such project is in New York City's Hudson Yards, a 28-acre mixed-use redevelopment project started in 2012, and planned for completion by 2019. Sleek, energy-efficient skyscrapers and retail centres will modernize the landscape, but it's the guts of the project that will truly futurize the neighbourhood.

The $20-billlion Hudson Yards project is the largest in U.S. history. It's also set to become the world's first fully instrumented community outfitted with "future-proofed" communications systems, as well as sensors and meters to monitor traffic, air pollution, water, energy consumption and pedestrian movement. The neighborhood will also host a 13.2-megawatt cogeneration power plant, a microgrid connecting homes and businesses, and a vacuum-tube system to collect and sort waste streams.

Urban informatics researchers at New York University will analyze the community. The project is designed to fine-tune building performance, transportation flows and emergency operations. But the bigger opportunity, said Kontakosta, is in understanding the complex connections between noise and air pollution and education levels, or building design and occupant behaviour.

"This will really help us truly understand how an urban neighborhood functions at a granular level," said Kontakosta. "The social sciences element is all very new."

While there is much learning and experimentation still to come, the influence is being felt. Under this people-first premise, cities around the world – from Rio de Janeiro to Vancouver – are implementing new systems connecting streetlights, water infrastructure, buildings and transportation systems into a cohesive, controllable whole designed to better serve citizens.

“We’re seeing projects in the thousands, across governments and the private sector,” said Rob Bernard, the general manager for cities and sustainability at Microsoft. “Cities are figuring out how to turn citizens into human sensors for improving their services and infrastructure.”

Progress is still incremental, not revolutionary. But it’s clear that the “city of the tomorrow” is arriving today.

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