How Can We Make Cities Smart?

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Graham Southorn is a freelance science and technology writer and a former editor of BBC Focus magazine. He covers the science behind navigation and mapping for the HERE 360 blog.

Thanks to social media and sensors being embedded in objects as part of the Internet of Things, the amount of data being collected is growing rapidly. But how will this transform our understanding of cities? One person who’s investigating ways we can make sense of this information is Prof Andrew Hudson-Smith, the Director of The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. Andrew will be speaking about big data and the Internet of Things at the Connected City Summit on 16 March. Graham Southorn asks him how we can make cities truly smart.

How does the ‘Connected City’ theme relate to your work?
I run a lab that's been around for 20 years, which focuses on making places wired and smart. It [the ‘Connected City’] is all about flows - flows of transport, flows of crowds, and flows of finance. We've been working on this for years and suddenly, via the emerging Internet of Things, we can begin to make sense of how places work.

How smart are cities right now?
There is a lot of hype around the world about making places connected and smart, and around the Internet of Things. If you look at where the Web was in 1992 - there were lots of websites but they weren't joined up. Similarly, we're viewing the Internet of Things as lots of interesting feeds popping up - you've got real-time feeds of buses, of the Tube, and from social networks. But they all go to their own points. They need to go into a single, central hub so that you can archive them and put urban modelling behind the scenes to make sense of them and understand what they mean. But I don't think we’re there yet. Places are currently quite dumb, but there are some interesting smart pockets popping up.

How important is it to make sense of the information being gathered?
You always need to take a bit of a step back and understand that while it’s fine gathering all of these Internet of Things feeds and traffic feeds, you've still got to communicate it to the public at large, the policy makers, and the mayor's group. Therefore you have to get over the traditional urban geography/computer science type view of the world in favour of a more hands-on, arts-based view. I guess you have to make things pretty. And you have to make the public look at it and think ‘Oh my god - have a look at how this transport network flows!" There's a unique mix of skills that is required, which is the artist and the Internet of Things, and people who know about how planning and architecture works. There’s a unique training need for this.

You’ve used physical maps in your work – why’s that?
We're moving away from the laptop view of the world, where someone plugs in and gives a PowerPoint presentation - all the normal stuff. I think people are becoming blind to all of that. We learned that if we put our normal London traffic map on a wall, people really won't care. But we then cut a bit of London out of wood and put some legs on it. Then, rather than project data on the wall, we projected it down onto the map. And suddenly it's a physical thing - you can put a coffee cup or your glass of wine down on it and talk about it. It’s made quite an impact on our lab - creating physical objects that you can shine feeds on to, because it gives people something to touch.

Your lab has made a 3D map showing tweets coming from different London buildings. What are the applications of this work?
First, it demonstrates the fact that once you click ‘yes’ to [social media signup] terms, people can actively collect your feeds. But once those feeds are collected, it is interesting from a language point of view. For example, you can run language-based software so that you can see which languages are tweeting and where. We're ultimately moving towards a real-time census. The traditional census is every 10 years, it's horribly flawed, and costs a fortune. Whereas if you just mined social networks, you can search keywords, pick up peoples' moods, and search for the words 'home' and 'work' to see where people's workplaces are. A real-time census could happen within 5-10 years.

What’s the main challenge for the Internet of Things?
The current challenge is that there are lots of firms trying to do the same thing and none of it is joined up. Lots of companies have jumped on the term ‘smart’ because there's money to be made. And while you've got lots of Internet of Things ‘things’ out there, they're all battery powered and batteries fail. You can't have millions of Things if, in six months to a year's time, millions of Things' batteries run out. Someone has got to run around and replace them! What needs to be solved is the Internet of Things low power network, and there are various ways and means of doing that. We also need to look at when Things actually become smart. From an urban point of view, you don't want 10 Things or a hundred Things. You want feeds from hundreds of thousands of self-powered Internet of Things devices.

Are you looking forward to the Connected City Summit?
I'm a massive RE•WORK fan - this will be my fourth one. RE•WORK is one of those conferences where you can quietly sit back and think "this is amazing", and you don't often get that from an academic conference. I like the way that RE•WORK is much more about the real world.

Andrew Hudson-Smith will be speaking at the 3rd annual RE•WORK Connected City Summit in London on 16-17 March 2016. Other speakers include Julie Alexander, Siemens; Neal Coady, British Gas; Bart Remes, TU Delft; Larissa Suzuki, UCL; Marcos Brassols, Watly and more.

Tickets are limited for this event, for more information and to register please visit the event page here.

Would you like to be our next guest author? Find out how here!

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of RE•WORK. As a result some opinions may even go against the views of RE•WORK but are posted in order to encourage debate and well-rounded knowledge sharing, and to allow alternate views to be presented to the RE•WORK community.

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