I’m building a time machine

Hurrah according to Google it’s the year of the automated car. I’m twitching the curtains waiting for it to arrive. Then again, I’m not sure I’d like to be driven around at 25 miles an hour, a speed just slow enough to feel uncomfortable when passing pedestrians. Is it like a miniature railway, do I wave at people? According to Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary ‘Driverless cars are the future’ having announced ‘no barriers’ to trial such technology.

But where would I go in my smart car? To the smart city of course. Well for starters, it will be Milton Keynes where the first fully autonomous vehicle will operate in public in the autumn.

To visit the smart city of 2050 we’re going to need a time machine. By 2050 the human population will have reached 9 billion, 75% of whom will be living in cities.  A population that Josef Hargrave, author of Arup’s report ‘It’s Alive’ calls “net-native adults” who will have lived all their lives engaging with smart devices and materials.

And it’s no secret that technology is changing our lives and the cities we live in.  Even historic cities once thought as inflexible and mono-functional are becoming smart. Technology is an enabler, allowing you and I to tune the environment around us to meet our needs.

In a smart city buildings will be “dynamic, intelligent and reactive”, according to Hargrave, “Just like all the different components of the smart city, they – and the systems within them – will be integrated into a living network, attuned to what’s happening in the surrounding environment – for instance, making changes to heating or lighting in response to the weather, or storing energy when costs are low for use when prices and demand go up. They’ll have inbuilt resilience to climatic events, from high winds to cold snaps. And blue roofs replace green roofs, capturing rainwater – a potential back-up supply when water’s scarce, or acting as temporary reservoirs during heavy rain to prevent flooding.”

A holistically planned, mixed use smart project is much easier to build when building from scratch such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi but it’s not impossible to retrofit some elements into existing European cities. Even the historic City of York has a wireless solution that conforms to English Heritage guidelines. The fully supported service is free for users 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is of such high quality that it is able to support streaming services such as BBC iPlayer. The network also give City of York Council access to helpful data from the network, such as footfall and how public spaces in the centre are being used.

The smart city as a network

By 2050 buildings won’t operate as single environments. Hargrave believes that “the city of 2050 will exist as a highly sensitive network, able to collect and analyse and respond not just to the needs of the immediate user but to the wider requirements of the city. To produce food and energy, providing clean air and water.”

Sensors in public places will build a more comprehensive picture of cities.  Sensors on parking spots, waste bins, water pipes will quietly collect data which can be analysed and applied to use resources more efficiently.

Of course there will be big brother concerns over data security, no one wants to feel their city is snooping. But as we’ve seen from the growing trend towards more social relationships with brands, people are happy to share data, if they are able to see and feel the tangible benefits.

To make it more tangible we need to take the invisible and make it visible. What’s more behavioural psychology research indicates two key drivers of behavioural change are ‘active learning’ and ‘social proof’, in other words trying something out and seeing others doing it.

For example, if I play my part in reducing greenhouse gases am I making a difference?  Is everyone else recycling household waste, car sharing or cycling to the office? With no proof either way it can be difficult.  The ‘internet of things’ can help by monitoring and recording such data, analysing it and displaying it to me in a visually appealing format. The theory goes that if I can see the positive impact I am having as a part of a wider community, I’m more likely to continue.  An existing such project on a much larger scale is Urban EcoMap, an interactive web service that displays environmental footprints for Amsterdam and San Francisco.  In Sydney, the Barangaroo project is a major urban development project which will use informatics services to address water, energy and other resource use and also show sustainable infrastructure patterns, real-time transit activity and community information.

A real time system

A city should be a real time system which monitors and shares data, news and success stories. According to Arup’s report Smart Cities “A city that shares policy changes, news and data is not only keeping its stakeholders engaged but also opens up communication channels that encourage immediate feedback to gauge how communities feel about policy changes.”

By giving communities the opportunity to feedback on the city through social networks the city has access to real time data which can be invaluable when making change if they are to act swiftly based on public feeling. What’s more a community which has the opportunity to share and act in such real time data will surely be more engaged?

They tell us that the internet is taking the community spirit out of ‘real life’ friendships and neighbourhoods. But it is also bringing us together. An engaged community, that shares the same goals and is fully aware of how the city is functioning can and will demand change for the better. To me it sounds like a good place to live. Just as soon as I finish my time machine – does anyone know anything about flux capacitors?

Information sources

Arup ‘It’s Alive’ by Josef Hargrave


‘Smart Cities’ Transforming the 21st century city via the creative use of technology.


BA Business Life, November 2014,Smart Cities, Sorrel Downer,



Ali Lee is a freelance copywriter, previously a digital geek, with a sunny disposition.www.thewordonthestreet.rocks