A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 May 2012

Last week, Paris was host to the inaugural New Cities Summit. Over two and half days, 700 mayors, CEOs, city planners, architects and academics descended on La Défense to trade tips on tech, transport and everything it takes to make cities great.

There were a few headlines. The name of the game seemed to be technology (to either get connected, or go green), and the way to win was through public private partnerships. From Vancouver to Tel Aviv, the future of the urban environment is one where bus shelters have touch screens and even the parks you picnic in have free Wi-Fi. And, municipal governments aren’t having too much trouble finding corporate partners – for the likes of GE, Ericsson and Cisco, making cities “smart” is a booming new industry.

It’s relatively recent that the number of people who live in cities tipped 50 percent of the world’s population – and we seem to be entering into an era of the ‘megacity’ (those with a population over 8 million). India and China both claim that within the next decade they’ll need to build hundreds of new cities, each home to millions. And they’re turning to the private sector to help get the job done.

And, of course, old-fashioned cities won’t suffice. They need to be high-tech. New planned cities such as Lavasa in India’s Maharashtra province are being built to be wireless, trying to attract R&D and creatives rather than industry.

Old cities too are looking to get tech-ed up.

In Paris, the city is investing in “smart” street furniture. With the hopes of becoming a living lab, its historic streets are being transformed with swivelling touch screens and electric car-shares. Of the 40 selected projects, 17 are already on the go. But, does the Tuileries need high-tech gaming stations to validate itself in a future Paris? Are the cities of today too quickly seduced by companies selling “smart”? Do you need to be able to swipe through job offerings on a 2ft screen on the side of a bus shelter, for all to see, while waiting for your ride into town?

Mayors the world over seem more than willing to be early adopters of urban gadgets that are universally read as progress. But, one problem with up-to-the-minute tech is that, well, a minute doesn’t last very long. With technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to imagine that anything “smart” today will seem so in five years.

Is a map/entertainment guide/schedule screen that can be used by one person at a busy bus stop really a leap forward in terms of service as Paris’s Abribus project would have it – especially when it’s out of order? A printed map may just suffice and I promise that it has a smaller carbon footprint too.

Maybe it’s “smartest” to stop and think about what a city really needs rather than what can be designed for it. Technology does, and will continue to play an important role in making our cities, big and small, work better – but smart mayors should be wary of paying up for soon-to-be-passé tech treats.


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