Are we chasing sexy in the race towards smart cities?

by David Everton, Director - Government and Public Affairs

Published on
August 18, 2017

Are we chasing the sexy things when we set about crafting smart cities? In this post, I will explore a few city ideas that are more show than go, and consider some alternatives.

Smart and sexy rarely go together. Before you get too excited, yes, there are hundreds and thousands of examples of smart and sexy going together. But they don’t help my story, so let’s ignore them for now.

In the animal kingdom, sexy relies on looks and smart relies on smarts. Call it evolution or animal instinct, but smart and sexy trade-off remains a part of modern society.

The peacock was busy peacocking while Homo Habilis was figuring out what to do with their opposable thumbs (other than twiddling). Dedicating one’s self to the opposite pursuit would have been pointless and counterproductive.

Here’s just a few smart city ideas and some alternatives to consider:

1. Driverless cars

Driverless cars are sexy – ethical concerns aside.

At the push of a button or perhaps something even smarter (sentience?), a vehicle arrives at your door to whisk you away to your chosen destination. But where did the car come from, who owns it and what will the traffic be like where you are going? The answer might be exactly the same as now, and that doesn’t seem smart.

Have we hit peak car? Probably not, but in most cities, we have hit peak road. So what is a smart way to reduce car ownership?

True car sharing (models where you don’t own a car as opposed to models where you retain your car and make available its unutilised capacity) is smart. If you don’t need a car that much, having a car as a service and not a depreciating asset where you have to worry about maintenance, registration, etc. is smart. Think of car sharing as the bridge to get to driverless cars.

2. Smart buildings

Smart buildings are sexy. You know the ones that monitor everything, have blinds that draw themselves when it is sunny, they turn the lights off when no one is at home.

However, making our buildings more accessible would be just as smart.

Did you know we have an ageing population? As our population ages, so will our need to accommodate wheelchair users, people with limited walking abilities, the sightless and partially sighted and the hearing impaired.

Will we have a future accessibility problem? How many of our building entrances are more like invading Troy or making it to Everest base camp than being easily accessible? How many elevators have you been in recently that could take two wheelchairs simultaneously? If we aren’t planning and building truly accessible buildings for the masses, get ready for a lot of waiting.

3. Smart meters

Smart meters are sexy.  You can monitor your water and power use and adjust and take greater control of your behaviour.

I have a mobile phone with a battery meter at the top, but it doesn’t regulate my use and I have to charge it every day, sometimes halfway through the day. What will make water or power consumption any different?

Efficiency is smart, yet for houses, in particular, we continue to build inefficient dwellings that rely on air conditioning, rather than design approaches like wide eaves and airflow, that the ‘Queenslander’ used around a hundred of years ago.

4. Free Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi is sexy. There are some economic benefits to be derived from it –tourism and mining user data are but two. So what is the extreme of this approach – would free coffee be smart? Coffee shops are the creative infrastructure of our cities – meeting points and melting pots for ideas and collaboration. Could we turn our public spaces into giant coffee shops and reap the rewards?

5. Public transport and infrastructure

Public transport and the associated infrastructure tries very hard to be sexy. It isn’t, but could free public transport be? We already subsidize around two-thirds of the cost in South-east Queensland. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of local data on this. We’ve had a few fare free days lately, but it may have been impossible to keep track on ridership over these times.

Do we consider who benefits from public transport and how should they pay? Universities and schools benefit, but students pay half price and also partly travel in off-peak times. Perhaps there a smarter way of incentivising public transport and rewarding users and cities that do it better.

These are just a few ideas ranging from the sublime to the slightly silly. But most importantly, they are not mutually exclusive. Call me superficial, but I would like our cities to be smart and sexy.