Four Reasons Planners Should Care About 'Smart Cities'

20 August 2017

When I first arrived back in Australia I presented the following text to some of my old local government planning colleagues. Although the Smart City concept is broad, involvement of planners continues to lag behind engineering, ICT and other associated professions. I am not the first person to say this. Anthony Townsend pointed it out in his 2013 book 'Smart Cities', and probably others before him did too. Nevertheless, with specific exceptions, this statement remains true. Frequently smart city expos and conferences focus on new technology such as connected streetlights, cloud computing, driverless cars and standards for the Internet of Things, all terms that sit outside the scope of traditional day-to-day planning work. This may lead the planning profession to assign Smart Cities to the exclusive realm of computer scientists and engineers, however, doing so would be a mistake for a number of reasons.

First, technology is a fundamental force that shapes the way cities form. For example, widespread acquisition of cars for personal transportation since the 1950s shaped Australia's sprawling low-density suburbs (and others around the world). Along with refrigerators, cars also made it possible for customers to travel further to buy groceries in bulk, making large supermarkets viable. Knowing the past, planners also need to look ahead to the future. What happens if, enabled by the falling cost of networked technology, more people decide to work from home, more often? What if driverless cars mean fewer vehicles on the road? Both these scenarios have potentially profound impacts on urban form and function, and therefore planning.

Secondly, it is not just brand new gadgets that are relevant to planning so much as the increasing power of the computers and systems that planners and other government administrators and decision makers already rely on. The models and forecasts produced by these computers will only get more complex, mirroring, but not entirely mirroring, the real world and planners need to be able to take advantage of these new tools whilst understanding their limitations in decision making.

The third related reason refers to the continued automation of the administrative tasks which currently take up a large chunk of most day-to-day planning work. For instance, it is conceivable in the near future that development applications will take the form of a 3D building information model which can be automatically checked in a three-dimensional city information model against any quantifiable code including building height, setbacks and floor height above recommended flood levels, to name just a few. When this becomes reality both the way planners write policy and assess applications will be very different, with planners less focused on filling out forms and more focused on balancing the subjective or political aspects of major development.

Finally, the big data that is being generated through computer systems and networked devices can be used as an evidence base for planning, in a way that has not been possible until recently. For example, some local authorities are fortunate to have detailed land use and development datasets that offer fascinating insights into the way that their cities are growing and changing, a task until recently severely limited by computer processing power and storage.

Are planners too late for Smart Cities? It is broadly recognised that this term probably has a limited life span and we are getting close to a decade now since massive projects like Songdo started to bring it to the forefront, and even though it is actually relatively new in this country (~2015) it has already been parodied (Utopia, episode 2, good show). However, whether it is this buzz word, a new buzz word, or no buzz word it does not change the reality that digital technology is changing the profession and that planning needs to get up to speed.

Agree, disagree or have anything to add? Let me know @ClaireCities

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