Smart Cities – what problems are we trying to solve?

Many people are getting excited about Smart Cities and the Smart City Movement. Just over a week ago The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, outlined during London Tech Week his ambitions to make London the world’s leading ‘smart city’.

From the beginning I have been a Smart City sceptic. It’s not that I am against technology – far from it – but from the beginning I have seen too much of the thinking based around the holders and gatherers of data trying to work out how they can make money from it. Too little, if any, thinking, seems to be about what what human problems are we trying to solve. There is too much focus on the technology and not enough on the humans. It seems that the technology is in the driving seat rather than the real needs of people – all of our people.

It seems to me that many of the problems which we have in our villages, towns and cities are not technological problems but are social problems caused through the way we operative our society and the economic policies and philosophies which drive these social choices. We are not going to solve these problems through technology alone.

In the last few days I found a quote dating back to 1961 which I think we can do well to act on when we are thinking of Smart Cities. In the RIBA Journal of November 1961 (page 508) a paper from Henry T Swain at the BASA conference on The Basis for Design, at York Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, pointed out the following:

“Before correct architectural answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked”.

I think we need to apply this thinking to Smart Cities: ‘Before correct technological answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked’ – before we all run off and spend a lot of taxpayers’ money, we need to ask ‘What human problems are we trying to solve?’

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