The population of London swells by an additional 10,000 a month, a tendency replicated in cities across the world. To an extent such growth reflects the planet’s burgeoning wider population, and there is even an interesting argument that cities are an efficient way of providing large numbers with their necessary resources. What we know as the ‘smart city’ may well prove to be the necessary means to manage this latest shift at scale.
Justin Anderson is sympathetic to this assessment. As the chairman of Flexeye, vice chair of techUK’s Internet of Things Council, and a leader of government-funded tech consortium Hypercat and London regeneration project Old Oak Common, he is uniquely positioned to comment on the technological development of our urban spaces.
“We are in an early stage of this next period of the evolution of the way that cities are designed and managed,” he says. “The funny thing about ‘smart’ of course, is that if you look back 5000 years, and someone suggested running water would be a good idea, that would be pretty smart at the time. ‘Smart’ is something that’s always just over the horizon, and we’re just going through another phase of what’s just over the horizon.”
There’s some irony in the fact that Anderson finds himself so profoundly involved in laying the foundations for smarter cities, since architects have been in his family for 400 years, and he intended to go in that direction himself before falling into the study of mathematics – which then led to a career in technology.
“There are lots of similarities between the two,” he says. “Stitching lots of complex things together and being able to visualise how the whole thing might be before it exists. And of course the smart city is a world comprised of both the physical and virtual aspects of infrastructure, both of which need to be tied together to be able to manage cities in a more efficient way.”
Like many of the great urban developments, the smart city is mostly going to be something invisible, something we quickly take for granted.
“We’re not necessarily all going to be directly feeling the might of processing power all around us. I think we’ll see a lot of investment on the industrial level coming into the city that’s going to be invisible to the citizen, but ultimately they will benefit because it’s a bit more friction taken out of their world. It’ll be a gradual evolution of things just working better – and that will have a knock on effect of not having to queue for so long, and life just being a little bit easier.”
There are, however, other ways connectivity could change urban life in the coming years: by reversing the process of urban alienation, and allowing online communities to come together and effect real world change.
“If you can engage citizens in part of that process as a way that they live, and make sure that they feel fully accountable for what the city might be, then there’s also a lot of additional satisfaction that could come from being a part of that city, rather than just a pawn in a larger environment where you really have no say and just have to do what you’ve got to do. Look at something like air quality – to be able to start to get that united force and be able to then put more pressure upon the city authorities to do something about it. Local planning policy is absolutely core in all of this.”
Anderson sees technology as an operative part of the trend towards devolution, with cities and their citizens gaining more and more control of their destiny. “If you build that sort of nuclear community around issues rather than just around streets or neighbourhoods, you get new levels of engagement.” For such changes to be effected, however, there is plenty that still needs doing on the technical level – a message Anderson will bringing to Internet of Things World Europe event in Berlin this October.
“I think the most important thing right now is that technology companies come together to agree on a common urban platform that is interoperable, allowing for different components to be used appropriately, and that we don’t find ourselves locked into large systems that mean cities can’t evolve in a flexible and fluid way in the future. We have to have that flexibility designed into this next stage of evolution that comes frMakom interoperability. My drive is to make sure everyone is a believer in interoperability.”