When he coined the phrase “robotics” back in the 1950s, Isaac Asimov got a bit ahead of himself in then imagining that by the early 21st century society would be dependent on intelligent machines. But the ever-growing dominance of technology in our lives is turning much of this 1950s science fiction into modern reality.
From Twitter and Facebook, technology is increasingly the lubricant that makes the wheels of modern society turn.
And yet, as I have found when listening to experts in London and around the world over the last two years – courtesy of the freedom that not being in elected politics has given me to listen to clever people’s thoughts about the future, rather than worry about the demands of the present – we have barely scratched the surface of what technology could do for us.
Consider this conundrum: the recession, climate change, and dwindling oil and gas reserves all conspire to make energy policy one of the most pressing problems of the day. But while most of the effort of government departments and the energy industry is going into working out how many billions to spend on building wind farms versus even more expensive solutions like nuclear power, something like a third of all the energy we consume continues to be simply wasted, powering lights in rooms where there are no people, or devices whose operators stopped work hours before.
Smart-technology already exists that could solve this at the click of switch, saving us all a welcome few quid and giving technology responsibility for another of those drudge tasks that we are happy for machines to perform. So why haven’t we done it?
Part of the answer, as always, is about money and short-sightedness; the reluctance to invest in something expensive now when the benefits will only be clear in the long term.
But it’s also because, actually, society is simply not geared up to plan how to use technology.
Think how important technology is to all our lives and then wonder why there are only a handful of governments in the world, whether at a city, regional or national level that have any kind of information technology strategy beyond making the computers work in their own offices.
There are a small number of exceptions to this rule that suggest that things are starting to change. I think these early “smart city” pioneers are right: embracing information technology as a tool of government has the potential to provide more efficient services, reduce waste, and empower citizens to make more informed decisions about the resources they consume and to take a more pro-active role in governing their locality.
San Francisco, as ever, is a step ahead of most city governments. Like most metropolises San Francisco suffers from traffic congestion. But when the San Francisco transport team started studying the data they found that as much as 20% of drivers in the most congested central area had already arrived at their destination, but continued to circulate because they couldn’t find a parking space.
A modern-day Luddite might have concluded that the answer was to create more parking spaces, much as London’s mayor has decided that the way to help drivers is to give pedestrians less time to cross the road. But, thankfully, the San Franciscans studied the figures again and discovered that at most times of the day the number of available parking spaces at least matched the number of cars. It was just that the drivers didn’t know where they were and the car park operators had no way of telling them.
San Francisco’s solution was to install sensors in car park spaces around the city and to create a wi-fi service which tells drivers, via their mobile phones, when they are near an available parking space. The system also allows drivers to extend their stay online without having to physically return to top up parking meters. Early trials report significant cuts in congestion as a result, as well as happier drivers.
The success of this initiative prompted the city to open up its transport data to the public at large, spawning a whole new industry in writing transport-related phone apps and providing a welcome boost to a recession-hit economy in the process.
The city of Helsinki has being using data in a slightly different way, to help a whole community understand the impact of energy used in the home.
By firing a high-powered laser on to the smokestack of the Salmisaari power sub-station a green neon halo is formed in the night-sky, encasing the pollution released when power is generated. This simple visual device has helped local residents to make a connection between the energy they consume and the pollution it causes. The community thus began to take action, with households turning off unnecessary devices, with one eye looking out of the window to see the impact it had on the reducing the size of the halo.
A green neon halo over London is not going to happen. Imagine the planning inquiry. But it shows what can be done with the technology.
Also in Scandanavia, the town of Vjaxo in Sweden has run a trial of so-called “smart meters”, which give consumers real time information about the amount of energy they are personally using, and its financial cost. This technology has been around for years and it is incredible that it has not been put into widespread use before, because the experiment in Vaxjo resulted in a 24% reduction in energy use across the neighbourhood.
This just goes to prove that people often make apparently irrational decisions, such as wasting energy, only because they are not given the information with which to make better choices. As soon as they are, most people will “do the right thing” – but of their own volition, rather than government needing to force change through the law.
Technology can, therefore, be empowering and help to decentralise power. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to energy. At present we are all in the hands of the energy companies when it comes to living a modern life. If they mess up and there is a power cut, then none of us can watch TV, amend our Facebook pages, or even have a hot shower.
That’s because, with a few exceptions, we get most of our power in only one way – from the national grid. But modern renewable energy systems create the opportunity to at least partially change this. In the future many of our homes could be mini-power plants, using space on our roofs to generate electricity or heat water.
This could mean quite a fundamental change. Since the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century those who control energy have controlled society. But as the Harvard Professor, Jeremy Rifkin, puts it we are fast entering a new Industrial Revolution, where smart technology could enable individual households to become players in the energy market.
There is already some evidence that this would work. New York City built on the Swedish trial of smart-meters by adding an extra twist – the ability for households to automatically sell surplus energy when the spot price is high, and by programming homes to use energy-intensive devices like washing machines during the lowest price periods of the day. The results were an impressive 45% reduction in energy use across the neighbourhood.
This is just one way in which new technology can be embraced to enable people to get more involved in governing their city. For example, I also want to Londoners not only to be able to quickly inform the relevant authorities when they spot something like a blocked drain, or a damaged tree, but also to be able to track progress in solving the problem in real-time, and raise their neighbours to protest if it’s not done quickly enough.
“Local intelligence” we collect as we go about our daily lives could be incredibly important to the community as a whole. We all get frustrated with the council when they don’t sort out irritating local problems, but there’s not much they can do if they don’t know about it.
While there are many good experiments going on around the world, as far as I can see no city has yet fully embraced the concept of becoming a fully-fledged “smart city”. If I am elected as Mayor then I want London to be that city.
That will mean creating what Volker Buscher, a Director of the engineering firm, Arup, calls an “Urban Information Architecture” – an integrated plan for the development of technology networks across the city, in concert with strategies for things which we already take for granted, such as needing planning, transport, housing, and waste management.
And it will mean doing what we did with the congestion charge and taking brave decisions about how scarce investment funding is used so that we create the infrastructure which will enable London to be successful in the long-term.
In a time of recession there is a great danger that political leaders focus so much on the immediate present that they lose the vision and guts to plan adequately for the future. In my view that’s what the job of a leader is all about. As Labour Party members debate who should lead the fight to defend Londoners from the ConDem cuts agenda, I look foward to discussing these and other exciting new ideas about the future.
Send your ideas about making London a smart city to firstname.lastname@example.org.