What Is an Intelligent City?


A day-long forum at the National Building Museum sought to answer the question: What is an intelligent city? To guide the 350-plus attendees towards a working definition, leading policymakers, architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers and coders, and academics discussed the evolving relationships between information and communication technologies (ICTs), the built environment, and the people who make up cities.

ICTs and Cities

Ann Altman, general manager, global public sector, IBM, said more than half of the world now lives in cities, and one million additional people are moving into urban areas each week. This urban population explosion is putting enormous pressure on existing infrastructure, which many cities in both the developed and developing world already see as overwhelmed by the influx. To handle the new residents, some cities have been embedding sensors into infrastructure, collecting a range of data on air quality, crime, traffic, and water and sewage flows in and out of urban areas. However, what hasn’t been done yet is using all this new data to “change systems and the functionality of cities.”

Michelle Moore, White House Office of Environmental Quality, added that the U.S. federal government has been carefully watching what cities are doing in terms of new technologies given they are on the “vanguard of change.” While there are terabytes of data now flowing in, the question is how can the data be used? Who makes decisions on this data? Also, are there privacy issues? Xavier de Souza Briggs, associate director of general government programs, White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said any investment in intelligent cities “must be a means to an end” — sustainable urban development. (He also noted that the White House is now exploring an innovative “race to the top”-type program for infrastructure investment, which would ask localities to undergo a set of reforms before applying for federal transportations grants).

For Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a leader in the drive towards increased equitable urban development, “urbanization is a good thing.” However, Rodin is concerned about “creating the right type of technological infrastructure” that is inclusive and enhances a community’s resiliency. With the right strategies, cities can use ICTs to “advance resiliency” to a wide range of climate and social changes while fostering economic growth. An inclusive approach will help ensure all urban residents benefit. Given many urban residents are “digitally illiterate,” efforts in this area clearly need to be stepped up.  

ICTs are becoming ubiquitous within the built environment, said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Musem. “ICTs are fast joining the club of building arts.” In the beginning, the only real building science was masonry; later, came plumbing, lighting, electricity. “These technological changes led to changes in building types.” With the growth of ICTs, buildings, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure can now “talk to each other” and people. In the end, though, it’s really people “talking to each other”, perhaps using technology, that ultimately shapes the city.

New Opportunities and Challenges

“We used to look at data stastically. Past data was used to guide future action,” said Altman. Now, present tense data can be used to guide current and future development. “We can see how people commute, walk, use water and energy.” In a statement that may be controversial to some landscape architects, she said “we can use data to show where we should put new green spaces.”

Rodin seemed to agree that widespread use of ICTs could fundamentally change how cities are developed, adding that “new data is always the precursor to revolutions.” The revolution in biology was due to the microscope, a new measurement device that unearthed a whole new world of data. New measurement devices lead to new data, which then leads to new thinking. However, she noted that “people can also abuse data.” Thinking far ahead, she said data could facilitate “Robert Moses-like abuses on cities.” Still, in a positive example of how new measurement technologies have led to a planning revolution, she pointed to the Kibera slum in Kenya, a community off the grid in almost all senses, which has been undertaking a community mapping project using open planning technologies. “They are using technology to empower themselves.”

For the federal government, all that new data presents many challenges. Even now, the U.S. government is the largest contributor to the torrents of public data. Among the concerns of ICT policymakers are data loss, information overload, digital illiteracy, and privacy, said de Souza Briggs. Some innovative solutions are being thought out though to anonymize data so that aggregate personal data, which is crucial for policymakers, can still be used. For example, to maintain travelers’ privacy, federal airport passenger screeners are testing out using avatars so that anyone X-ray scanned will be made anonymous. Moore added that the goal of Data.gov is to improve the transparency of data and the government is, in effect, outsourcing some analysis of these massive data pools by inviting coders and academics to create their own applications.

Rodin brought the conversation back to the ground by inserting some interesting real-life examples. In San Francisco, parking spaces are tagged so drivers don’t have to spend endless hours circling for a spot. They can just login via their smart phone and find an available spot. “They are also regulating pricing by availability.” In addition, more than 150 local transportation companies are creating mobile apps showing up-to-the-minute train and bus availability. “These systems encourage mass transit use.” Lastly, Walk Score is helping urban residents find out which areas are the easiest to live and get around in.

The “Are You Sure About That?” App

Piedmont-Palladino seemed somewhat dubious about the idea that ICTs will be the end-all-be-all answer to the many problems facing cities. In fact, these new technologies could even empower a new set of technologists and planners to get things horribly wrong. Just as in the past when many planners, architects, and landscape architects “have gotten it wrong” and “solved perfectly the completely wrong problem,” ICTs could enable a whole new set of overreach and errors. She asked for the creation of an “Are you sure about that?” app that would ask policymakers, planners, and designers to rethink their core biases and assumptions and ask, “Are there any communities we are forgetting about?” before they moved forward with a new ICT-driven project.

Rodin argued that investing in low-cost ICTs like SMS text systems and improving digital literacy may help ensure these types of errors don’t happen when planning and designing these new ICT-enabled cities. Illiterate users can use “spoken Web” software that enables them to turn vocal messages into Web sites. In addition, in Kenya, there has been a boom in “mobile finance apps” that enable simple SMS text message banking. “Not all technology needs to be expensive.” In fact, it’s the inexpensive, mass technologies that may help make sure emboldened technologists and planners don’t “do planning to us.”

See a full Web-cast of the forum and check out some of the interesting infographics produced for “Intelligent Cities.”

Image credit: Map Kibera

One thought on “What Is an Intelligent City?

  1. Urban Choreography 06/13/2011 / 8:06 am

    I’m not sure the question is correctly phrased in the title because it would seem to me that only living beings can be intelligent – with all the digital tech in the world it still takes humans to design for humans as is here rightly stated

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