The development of so-called smart cities requires careful planning – planning that requires a careful balance between conventional and modern technology, as well as computerised and human interactions. This was highlighted by University of the Witwatersrand information systems Associate Professor Judy Backhouse, who was guest speaker at the forty-first Infrastructure Dialogue, where she elaborated on safety in smart cities.
Held at the Development Bank of Southern Africa in November 2016, the event’s theme, Safety in our Public Spaces, dealt with how infrastructural, social and/or technological interventions can assist in improving safety in public areas, and the challenges thereof.
Backhouse pointed out two understandings of smart cities: appearance and wealth, and intelligence and understanding. In the first instance, good infrastructure and modernity are “the focus [and comprise] supporting . . . often . . . high-tech and international businesses, thereby attracting talent to work on those businesses and improving infrastructure . . .”
Alternatively, the smart city concept also involves having a quick-witted intelligence, most likely enabled by a device that has been programmed to perform an independent action, she added. This definition talks to an understanding of a smart city as a place where human and machine intelligence are applied to solve city problems. In this regard, a smart city employs intelligent infrastructure to support research to improve the understanding of its problems, which involves the application of technology in collecting and analysing data to inform solutions.
Major considerations also include managing inclusivity so that urban safety is not compromised. One of the major obstacles with many smart cities is that certain demographics are inevitably excluded. Backhouse cited the Konza Techno City development on the outskirts of Nairobi, in Kenya, aimed at building new smart cities, as an example.
With the development clearly targeted at highly skilled individuals and international businesses, “there is some benefit for the poor and small informal businesses in servicing these projects, but their needs are not being considered. These projects are being driven by large international construction and information technology companies and tend to serve only their own interests,” she elaborated.
This approach, without careful planning, Backhouse added, was likely to lead to an increase in inequality and divert resources away from projects with more equality-driven goals.
Opportunities for addressing some of the problems of rapid urbanisation, such as an increase in criminal activity, through the incorporation of information technology (IT), do exist. Such problems will, however, only be addressed successfully if the vast amounts of data collected are analysed timeously.
Backhouse stressed the importance of ensuring sufficient human interaction with IT systems, such as closed-circuit television cameras, to allow for efficient responses.
Using these technology solutions in conjunction with human intelligence to design and operate them, as well as interpret the information to act accordingly, was, therefore, critical, she concluded.