The social nexus

On 25 January 2011 the streets of Cairo erupted in protest against the then President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive Egyptian regime. Over the next 72 hours the government shut down the country’s Internet service and mobile phone system in an attempt to squelch the rebellion. To no avail: a rich ecosystem of Facebook conversations, Twitter outbursts and chat room plans had already unified millions of Cairo’s people, who continued the relentless uprising. The government backed down and restored communications to keep the country’s economy on life support, but the masses kept up the pressure until Mubarak resigned two weeks later.

Just weeks before, during Tunisia’s ‘Dignity Revolution’, dissident blogger and protest organiser Slim Amamou used the mobile social app Foursquare to alert his friends of his 6 January arrest. By ‘checking in’ at Foursquare’s virtual depiction of the prison in Tunis where he was being held, Amamou revealed his location to a global web of supporters and immediately grabbed the international spotlight. The news stories sparked further uprisings, and long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was soon ousted.

Across the archipelago of places where the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts played out, citizens used new Internet applications and ubiquitous mobile phones to wage a battle over the soul of their cities, shifting resources back and forth, from cyberspace to ‘cityspace’. Contrast those transformations with a handful of large urban development projects that have been vying to be crowned the model ‘smart city’ of the future. Furthest along are the comprehensively pre-planned, walled community of 50,000, Masdar, outside Abu Dhabi, Songdo City in South Korea, and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, where experiments to determine how future cities will be built are carried out by governments, real estate developers, ICT companies, and designers.

But as models, these top-down projects pale in comparison to the emergent form of intelligence that is bubbling up from millions of newly cyber-connected residents. Truly smart – and real – cities are not like an army regiment marching in lockstep to the commander’s orders; they are more like a shifting flock of birds or shoal of fish, in which individuals respond to subtle social and behavioural cues from their neighbours about which way to move forward. Although the mobs in Cairo and Tunis appeared unruly, their actions resulted from digital coordination of human activity on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands of people appeared in Tahrir Square in Cairo because text messages and tweets summoned them – reflecting an immensely powerful, democratic and organic alternative vision of the smart city.

Rather than focusing on the installation and control of network hardware, city governments, technology companies and their urban planning advisers can exploit a more ground-up approach to creating even smarter cities, in which people become the agents of change. With proper technical support structures, the populace can tackle problems such as energy use, traffic congestion, health care and education more effectively than centralised dictates can. And residents of wired cities can use their distributed intelligence to fashion new community activities, as well as a new kind of citizen activism.

Going beyond urban efficiency

Why are countries racing so haphazardly to implement smart cities? Why is IBM forecasting US$10 billion of revenue in its Smarter Planet initiative by 2015? What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming ‘intelligent’ and better able to respond to the specific conditions of the race.

In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fibre optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases – especially from the government – that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping both literate and illiterate people to access them. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like ‘computers in the open air’.

The vast amount of data that is emerging is the starting point for making efficient infrastructure programmable so that people can optimise a city’s daily processes. Extracting information about real-time road conditions, for example, can reduce traffic and improve air quality. In Stockholm’s road-pricing scheme, cameras automatically identify licence plates of vehicles entering the city centre and charge drivers’ accounts up to SEK60 (US$9, €7) a day, depending on where the cars go. The system has shortened the waiting time for vehicles traversing the central district by up to 50 per cent and has reduced pollutant emissions by up to 15 per cent. Similar technologies can help bring down water use (one example is being used by the Sonoma County Water Agency in California) and provide better services to citizens.

Building from the Bottom Up

If we focus on sociability as the starting point for design and tapping into citizens as the source of innovation, how do we go about crafting a smarter city?

An ideal beginning is to leverage the growing array of smart personal devices we all wield and recruit people as the sensors of a city, rather than relying only on formal systems embedded into infrastructure. The traffic function on Google Maps is a good example. Instead of building a costly network of dedicated vehicle sensors along roads, Google constantly polls a large network of anonymous volunteers whose mobile devices report their up-to-the-minute status, which reveals where traffic is flowing, has slowed or stopped. The information is delivered to drivers via mobile mapping applications in various ways: as coloured overlays indicating traffic speeds, as estimated driving times that account for delays, or as a factor in determining alternative routes. These handy data allow users to see the circulatory network of the city in real time and understand the constantly changing cost in time of getting from point A to point B. Although Google is certainly not a grassroots platform, this example shows how peer-to-peer sharing of sensory data can have a huge impact in helping to manage urban infrastructure. This scenario also shows how smart cities can be both sociable and more efficient without imposing order from above; you choose the best route based on your peers’ observations instead of being directed by traffic engineers.

Google’s traffic app leverages a large base of existing consumer devices. But bottom-up approaches to sensing can also provide rapid, cheap deployment of new kinds of sensors that measure and record data about people’s activities, movements, surroundings and health. As recently as 2009, Paris had fewer than a dozen ozone monitoring stations. To greatly expand this official data stream, the Green Watch project, overseen by Internet think tank Fing, distributed 200 smart devices to Parisians. The devices sensed ozone and noise levels as their wearers went about their daily lives, and the ongoing measurements were shared publicly through the Citypulse mapping engine. In the first trial, more than 130,000 measurements were taken in a single city district. The experiment showed how a grassroots sensory network could be deployed almost in an instant – at dramatically lower costs than expanding the city’s archaic fixed stations. The project also showed that citizens could become deeply engaged in environmental monitoring and regulation. Ultimately, sensors for grassroots networks will be built into everyday objects: phones, vehicles and clothing.

Bottom-up approaches are also leveraging the sociability of cities to change patterns of activity. As the booming popularity of local shopping networks such as Groupon and LivingSocial shows, connecting local businesses and city dwellers through mobile social networks is a powerful catalyst for action. These new ways of scripting the city can create more lasting kinds of social touch points, too. The Foursquare mobile social network that Amamou used in Tunis can also turn going out into a kind of mobile game. It crowns the most frequent visitor to every cafe, bar and restaurant as the ‘mayor’ – a reference to the ‘self-appointed public characters’ described in 1961 by urbanist Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Like the corner gossips that Jacobs argued were so critical to neighbourhood cohesion and safe streets, Foursquare’s mayors remind us that even the most intelligent of digital cities are vital because they are filled with interesting and accessible people.

This article is partially based on Carlo Ratti & Anthony Townsend, 2011, The Social Nexus, Scientific American (305), pp. 42-48.

Carlo Ratti is Director of MIT Senseable City Lab. Anthony Townsend is research director at the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto.