The Age of the Smart City

In this paper (downloadable here), I argue that the smart cities movement is simply the latest stage in the massive dissemination of digital computation that began with its invention some 70 or more years ago. In fact, the key thesis in the paper is that digital automation is simply the outcome of dramatic transition from a world without machines to one with, that digital technologies are the natural end-state of a process of automation that marks the ascent of man in general. This became evident with the rapid super-exponential change in technologies marked by the first industrial revolution which lead to the invention of the steam engine, then proceeding at pace through electrical and then into the digital revolution. In this context, I argue that the smart cities movement is the essence of the sixth Kondratieff wave. In developing this, I relate these waves of technological innovation to the prospect of all waves speeding up and collapsing into a singularity while in parallel, continuing into a regime of permanent creativity at the individual level

This paper also reflects on how the smart city can be defined and the difficulties in providing a coherent framework for its understanding and analysis. To an extent, smart cities are simply one feature of the city and to generate any collective and comprehensive understanding, ideas and technologies defining it must be related to every other perspective on the city. In this paper, I allude to the notion that the world population will stabilise during this century – that the demographic transition will work itself out and when we look back from the distant future, we will see this period as one in which the world moved rapidly from a non-urban regime to an urban one. In an earlier paper, I elaborated this argument in a commentary entitled “When all the world’s a city” which you can download here and can be read alongside the new article (also accessible on Research Gate).

China Urban Development at UCL

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Fulong Wu and his colleagues from the Bartlett School of Planning together with Peking University with several sponsors (see web site)  ran a great meeting Friday and Saturday 5-6 May in UCL which gathered together some 200 researchers and academics studying urban development in China is all its aspects. The web site contains the programme and a variety of contributions from Zipf’s law for Chinese cities to notions about state intervention and the crisis of debt pervading China’s cities and economies.

Conscious of the fact that I have spent 7 weeks in Hong Kong so far this year, where I have spoken about smart cities many times to groups at HCUHK, HKU and PolyU as well as SunYatSen University, I contributed a short talk on a key issue about smart cities in China, making the point that apart from cultural and economic differences which pervade all global comparisons of cities, the development of new IT in Chinese cities is not so different from cities in the west in general and the UK in particular. Bigger phones exist in China, more people (almost everyone) use them on the subways but the same old problems of implementing top down inspired plans to implement new IT in cities are the same everywhere. The experience to date of such large scale corporate ventures has not been good in the west and I expect it will be no better in China.

It’s hard, many IT plans fail but cities in China and elsewhere are built largely from the bottom up – they are complex systems – and how we deploy new technologies is really the driving force of the smart cities, in fact the driving force of the city in all its manifestations. Here is my very short PowerPoint as a PDF – so you can load it and click on the active links,. But for the real experience of the diversity and quality of the meeting, go to the web site and follow the titles and links there to get a sample of how rich the meeting was.

 

Then and Now

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In November 1986 I visited SunYatSen University and gave a public lecture about Urban Modelling. China was a very different world then, no cars, no computers, no email, barely functioning electricity. And of course it was before laptops, networks, hand-held devices and so on. The personal computer had only just been invented. The campus was more or less in the countryside. Despite China opening up in 1979, this was still the old China.

Fast forward 31 years to 2017. The University is now a power house, in the top 10 in China and advancing in the QS university rankings worldwide very rapidly. Since 1986, I have been there a number of times but I never gave any more public lectures until last Tuesday and Wednesday when I more or less repeated what I had talked about 31 years ago. Well not quite, of course; it was the same domain of interest and in the same lineage – but I talked about web-based, large-scale urban models, ideas about big data, smart cities and so on. A world away from those distant years but closely linked intellectually.

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There are no faculty left still working in the School of Geography and Planning from those years but this is not unusual because there is no one left in any of the universities I have worked in before 1990. And it is a little sad that of those who were students then and now senior faculty there, none could remember attending my lecture and I am sure they did not know of it but there were about 130 in the room at the time. I found the building I had lectured in largely because of the poster above which was hand painted for my 1986 visit. Those of you who are Chinese will be able to read this.

Here are the pdfs of the presentations I gave:

Click on these and enjoy.