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The Networked Urban Environment

Shanghai: Fear not the warden

Imagine never having to look for a parking space ever again. Imagine that from here on out, this problem is solved. Fast-forward to 2025. You’re driving from Brooklyn to Manhattan…because driving in New York City, and everywhere else, has become much simpler a task than it was a decade or so before.

Or has it?

On the surface, yes. While we may not be zooming around in speedy Minority Report-style vehicles in 2025, by we will have full (and fast, convenient, sufficiently cheap) access to data that is in the cloud – either through our vehicles (which will gradually take on new tech features with the same slow evolution as they always do) and more likely, simply because the cloud is anywhere we are – whether its accessible through our smartphones, tablets or embedded in the world around us. These services just might make life easier and more efficient than flying sedans ever would: our daily online calendars will automatically sync with those of our colleagues for meetings, those of our our children for school pickups, and even those of automated parking spaces.

The car itself will reserve and pay for a spot on the street or in a garage automatically, just as we pay seamlessly for electronic books and music via our Amazon and iTunes accounts today, without typing in our credit card information over and over again. Our computers handle the admin; we get on with our lives.

In 2025, we’ll even be comfortable delegating some of the administrative minutiae of travel to our cars to sort out; in essence, the car and the cloud will act as personal assistants and ‘travel agents’. Your travel agent will know the maximum we want to pay to park or want to walk from our parking spot to our destination. If plans or traffic patterns change while we’re en route, it will automatically off-load the reservation it has, and negotiatie an alternative. If our meeting or meal runs over and we can’t make it back to retrieve our car in time, the car itself will communicate with the next person’s travel agent – that is booked for that spot. Today in situations where someone is inconvenienced a ‘fine’ is levied to punish socially errant behaviour – the rules can be rewritten so that the inconviencer can directly compensate the inconveniencee, peer to peer, no middle man taking a cut.

Urban infrastructures are increasingly being equipped with sensors and other means of collecting information and channeling our everyday actions, from energy use to parking patterns, into software and networks that analyze data and act upon it. Cities–and communities– are becoming “smarter” as “the internet of things” evolves. What this means is that more and more people and things, including parking spaces are becoming connected, allowing for better prediction models of traffic and energy usage thanks to real-time data flows, leading to better awareness of current resource statuses and more practical matters such as more dependable payment mechanisms.

The smart-parking scenarios will arrive more quickly than you think–in fact, they’re already nearly here. On the most basic level, anyone can get free driving directions and an instant, estimated time of arrival from Google Maps, when they agree to share where they are at a given moment via GPS. Throughout Europe now, you can reserve public parking spots via SMS messages. In San Francisco, you can time a meeting so that you don’t pay peak-prices for parking, determined by a dynamic market pricing system launched as a pilot program this fall (and running through summer 2012) by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to help alleviate congested streets. It uses real-time data tracking to determing the cost of parking at 7,000 of San Francisco’s 28,000 metered spots, as well as 12,250 spaces in three-quarters of the parking garages owned by the cities.

And then there are much more intricate examples, on epic scales. In September, the technology company Pegasus Holdings announced it  is building a $200 million test city on a city scale in New Mexico–from scratch, where it will try out networked parking and transportation systems among other infrastructure innovations. In Asia and the Middle East, smart cities are being built from scratch: Tianjin Eco City in China; Songdo, South Korea; and Masdar in Abu Dhabi. In each of these examples, developers are working to implement traffic-solutions that will make use of new, networked technologies, all as part of creating more energy-efficient communities.

These optimistic visions aren’t just about making parking a more pleasant experience. They’re largely about solving urgent problems in a time of economic and sustainability-related challenges. According to a report by IBM, the economic impact of traffic congestion is $4 billion per year in New York alone, in terms of estimated lost work hours, pollution-related costs, and wasted fuel. In the United States, traffic congestion losses are growing at 8 percent a year, the most recent estimate being $78 billion in 2005. Worldwide, in both developed and developing-world cities, traffic congestion-related expenses represent between 1 percent and 3 percent of most cities’ GDP.

And on a larger scale, beyond parking and traffic, a recent report by Ericsson (published earlier this year) found that the more networked, or “smart,” a city is, the more that city sees benefits to its “triple bottom line” (its financial, societal, and sustainability-related successes). For every 10 percentage points increase in broadband penetration, the report found, the isolated economic effect on GDP growth is approximately 1% of GDP.

Whilst the pain of finding a parking space will dissipate into the cloud, the cloud will hide other, less apparent costs. The concepts of the “smart” car, “smart” parking and payment systems, and “smart” cities are interesting enough. But all are really just a smoke screen for a much deeper set of political and even philosophical issues that will impact urban dwellers in the near future, especially as more than half’s the world’s population will soon be living in cities. That set of issues centers around the delicate dance between public and private ownership of space, both in the cloud and on the ground.

The private sector is heavily involved in developing many of these and other massive urban infrastructure projects that are likely to or already use much of our personal data to create more efficient public services.  To give a sense of scale, there are 100 private funds seeking to raise $95 billion for infrastructure investments globally, according to research by San Francisco-based fund adviser Probitas Partners. IBM is working on a smart-parking system with a start-up called Streetline; a consortium of nine companies including Accenture and Panasonic are building a “smart town” in Fujisawa, Japan.  

The new model of privatized infrastructure is necessary to make up for city budget gaps in an era of economic challenges. And it certainly can cultivate much-needed employment. The New Mexico example, for instance, has been applauded by the state’s governor for possibly creating 4,000 new jobs. But bringing corporations in to help build new traffic and parking and other urban solutions can also raise important questions.

That’s because while this model can provide convenience, it could also create new problems for the communities that will use these smart infrastructures as well as the companies and governments that built them. Let’s go back to the parking example. Soon, there could be the possibility of third parties figuring out a way to unofficially buy and sell parking spaces in dynamic parking markets, via peer-to-peer systems of trading spots on the street. Will this become a punishable act, a violation of the rule of paying city authorities? Or will private-sector companies find ways to work with entrepreneurs who might see business opportunities in a once-regulated, government-operated systems, raising prices for parking even higher than the peak costs?

This is just one example.

I raise these questions not to cast doubt on the new public/private infrastructure–one that blurs the roles of citizens’ public and private lives, as well as the changing balance between the public and the private sectors in numerous cities turning to corporations to upgrade and update urban environments. Instead, I hope to provoke both cities and companies to consider the possible dilemmas that the new models will face: Who has the rights to exploit what happens on your sidewalk? Your neighborhood? Your roads? What are the rules? Who sets them? Who profits?

To avoid possible pitfalls will be the following when designing the new public/private infrastructure projects, it will be necessary to

– Establish clear policies on how any use of citizens’ data might be used when tracking  anything from parking habits, energy use, or any other behavior that is documented and analyzed as part of a smart infrastructure

– Consider potential black markets and data or payment security breaches and be prepared for violations of new system rules (as in the parking example)

– Create best practices for both corporations and governments, and share information via networks of smart cities, both real and “test” centers

– Work with community groups and citizens and all other stakeholders, in terms of involving them from the beginning of infrastructure planning to get feedback

Of course the evolving visions of massively networked urban infrastructures are as unique as the evolution as each city itself, and in many ways these nuances are the essence of life — home, families, businesses, communities coming together. In the big scheme of things, “smart” is interesting but pales in significance to relevance.

Photo: neighbourhood/parking warden, Shanghai.

This article also published here.