FUEL Vancouver

With the majority of the world’s population moving to city life, and with so many large-scale shifts happening around us, the stakes for getting urbanity right are indeed high.

As interactive designers, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder how digital technology might change cities for the better. You’ve probably heard the term ‘smart cities’ already, a kind of catch-all for augmenting the built environment with networks of low-cost sensors, ubiquitous wifi, mobile devices, and a raft of interacting public and private domain software.

Many of these discussions are excited and hopeful, but as designers we take seriously our responsibility for the things we put into the world. And we’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter how cool it is, all technology comes with tradeoffs. So if we want smart cities to do the most good for the most people, we need to consider those tradeoffs with city-level thinking.

Here are two trade-offs that often come into our conversations.

The more information that a system has about us, the more it can do to optimize and customize the benefits we expect from it. A city that knows how people move in detail can make hour to hour changes in traffic lights or decade to decade changes to infrastructure that make getting around easier. A grid that knows our daily consumption patterns can adjust capacity and pricing to make the most of our energy supply.

That’s easy to like, but to get there we also have to answer some hard questions. How much of our movement and energy use should be tied to our individual identities? Who can access that information, and what uses of that information would we allow? What are the possible abuses, and what protections are needed?

It’s often exciting to think about new ways that people could interact with their city with digital technology.

A few years ago we built a tool that created a unique social network around every one of the 8,000+ bus stops in and around Vancouver, enabling people to comment and converse about the areas around these points of infrastructure. This Is Our Stop opened otherwise invisible neighbourhood networks and let transit riders know their city a little more.

Other apps have enable people to report problems to the city with a photo and a bit of text, to check their garbage pickup schedules, and even engage in city-wide discussions about civic issues.

But there is a price of admission, and that is affording and feeling comfortable with digital devices. Any city experience that we put exclusively in the digital domain can implicitly exclude those without the means or the savvy to participate. As services go digital, a new responsibility emerges to ensure inclusiveness with affordable connectivity and access to devices.

Not a Doom and Gloom Moment
We think about these things not to throw cold water on optimism, but to calibrate expectations and efforts so that the brilliance of a smart city has the best chance at success. Nothing kills a good idea faster than charging into unforeseen costs, complexities, and cultural realities.

These are hard problems, but they aren’t unsolvable. They only need us to acknowledge that new technology is not just the technology, but it’s also the policies and values that we bring to deciding what outcomes we want. The trick is to make what’s technically possible for a smart city dream only be the start of the conversation. With that kind of thinking, we can get to smart cities that are also inclusive and fair.