Go to any urban or regional development conference and you will be dazzled with whimsical “Smart City” visions. Usually, this covers a mix of presentations about making cities better places to live in together with tech companies by the application of rapidly developing digital technologies ranging from block chain technology to 3D printing and artificial intelligence. But the presentations could include anything, really. The Smart City is a broad concept and circulates the conferencesphere and urban strategies without any solid definition.
I recently got a dose of Smart City talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai and the Urban Future Global Conference in Vienna. I had no intention for writing about Smart Cities when I attended, but experiences both in and outside of the conference halls got me thinking otherwise. The main takeaway from this conference combo turned out to be a peek into the fundamentally different ways cities can understand and approach evolving and potentially disruptive new technologies.
This was particularly clear around the narratives of a specific smart city niche: the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The kind of urban future autonomous vehicles promise is very well known. We shall experience less congestion, fewer accidents, less pollution, minimal needs for parking, and so forth.
Opinions about when our cities might be like this vary tremendously. Some think it’s only a dream.
The recent fatal accident in Arizona is, however, an unfortunate reminder about the fact that we must keep Smart Cities firmly in the center of urban discussions even if we can’t clearly see where we are going. The real-life dimension even to the flashiest Smart City visions is already here. And everywhere. There are only a handful of cities that aren’t on a quest to become Smart. Dubai and Vienna certainly are.
The City of Superlatives
The World Government Summit didn’t have a specific focus on urbanism, but the conference was ultimately very much about Dubai and its ambitions. And these are not modest. The city aims to become one of the most sustainable cities, the world’s happiest city, and, of course, the smartest city on earth. Dubai will soon also host Expo 2020, the first world fair in the Middle East, to flex its muscles.
To push for progress, they’ve founded Smart Dubai, a special government body with a mission to leverage technology to meet the city’s grandiose visions. Strong support is given from the national government, which now includes the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence.
One of Smart Dubai’s key initiatives is the provision of “Smart Mobility”. In other words, the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Dubai’s aim is to have 25% of all trips running autonomously by 2030.
And they’re serious. During the Summit, they were testing self-driving pods and announced a 5-million-dollar global challenge for providing solutions that will help Dubai meet their AV goals. Moreover, Dubai has already been testing with small “flying taxis”, they’ve just hired HERE to map the city with high-definition technology, and Tesla is already supplying Dubai with a fleet of vehicles with self-driving capabilities. At Expo 2020, they plan to test flying cars. That’s right, flying cars.
When in Dubai, smarter mobility was indeed at times a thing that felt needed. When you needed to travel somewhere, especially from the conference venue, you had to wait forever to have a ride arranged for you. Walking was impossible and there was no bus to hop into. The chaotic waiting lines had an upside, though: they were a very good opportunity for networking.
While I sat in morning traffic and watched people jog next to a highway-like road with no real sidewalks, I could not help keep thinking about whether Dubai’s Smart City project will ever deliver. Their approach reminds me of a pattern that cities have experimented with around the world at the expense of sustainability. Dubai very much included.
In just a few decades, Dubai has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a global metropolis of 3 million. The wonder happened in tandem with opening up to Western industries and ways of getting things done, including economic activity, real-estate development, and lifestyle. From an urbanistic point of view, this meant a transformation from a walkable Middle-Eastern town to one of the most dispersed cities I’ve ever seen.
Yes, Dubai has, without blinking an eye, embraced and enforced foreign-born policies and planning principles that have enabled extremely rapid growth, but also turned the city into the poster child of sprawl. The city’s goal for becoming one of the most sustainable cities on the planet could not sound more utopian.
A Chat with Angelika Winkler
Soon after the sun and warmth of Dubai, I was in freezing Vienna, and again listening to Smart City talk. On the AV front, discussions at the Urban Future conference unsurprisingly dealt with the potentials of self-driving cars in improving urban life. Or so it was until this came up: a session dedicated to singling out and mitigating the risks of autonomous mobility.
I’m glad I chose to attend. I learned that Vienna’s AV policy differs from that of Dubai’s. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite.
Vienna’s Head of the Mobility Strategies division, Angelika Winkler, enlightened us session attendees that for the past few years her team has been working a kind of response strategy to mitigate any unwanted outcomes AVs may bring. They want to be ahead of the game.
I got the chance to talk to Winkler about what this could mean in practice.
For starters, Vienna is thinking about enforcing a policy on routing, she told me: “AVs are designed to operate from an individualistic perspective, to take the quickest route from A to B. But this can be at odds with the interests of the community: sometimes the fastest route will go through quiet streets. We are planning to enforce some restrictions for concentrating most of AV traffic to streets where they don’t bother people.”
And they’re not too far away from this: “We are working on digitizing our traffic controls (traffic signs, etc.). Adding ‘community zones’ into the system will be quite easy.”
What AV evangelists always tell us is that the number of cars will decrease tremendously as a single robot-operated car can replace many human drivers and their cars. The urbanists fear this will backfire. The risk is that adopting AVs too eagerly will only amplify what cars did to cities: fuel the Dubaiesque dispersal pattern.
Winkler assures that this will not be the case in Vienna: “Autonomous or not, Vienna wants fewer cars altogether.” And more significantly, she mentioned there are tools to halt AV-related sprawl: “Cities can potentially prevent the sprawl scenario by not distributing support infrastructure for AVs in out-of-town sites”.
And speaking of support infrastructure, Winkler thinks Vienna should keep their engagement with AV tech and operating software to a minimum: “We think AV tech should be contained to the cars themselves, because the city management will never have enough resources to keep up with the tech/software development.”
Finally, Winkler encourages cities to intensify their prep work: “AV thinking within city halls has been slow. In Vienna, just in the last two years the attitudes have made it possible to form a group working on this.” A good way to make risk mitigation more effective is to network. “Vienna has just taken part in a new Eurocities working group on AVs”, she concluded.
Later, I joined a conference walking tour that was aptly called the “invisible smart city”. We, for example, dove into to why more than half of Viennese use public transit every day, how a refugee-run hotel works, and explored a project to turn empty shops into tourist rooms.
The tour stops were all, essentially, examples of the details that add up to Vienna getting repeatedly judged as one of the most livable cities in the world. Things that are “socially smart”, as our tour guide Eugene Quinn put it. This is what I would also extend to Vienna’s approach for dealing with the AV question. People are placed in the center of the equation.
How Will Cities Get Smart?
The Smart City may for the most part act as a nice umbrella term for activities that happen in dialogue between cities and the global market of tech innovations. A dialogue that is rather hidden and uninteresting besides the flashy headlines and imagery, and therefore not discussed in such detail as for example the question of adding more bike lanes.
But interesting or not, one thing is crystal clear: we are in the early stage of the digital age and sooner or later faced with disruptive innovations that will shape urban life as we know it.
We will only much later know what policies are wise in addressing their emergence. The experiences from Dubai and Vienna, however, offer food for thought to the role and philosophy of cities can take in this process.
Do they understand Smart City advancement as a top down project, positioning themselves as key stakeholders in clearing the way for the adoption of new technologies? Or do they perceive Smart City visions as impulses that rise from the bottom up, driven by external players, forcing cities to respond and readjust, if needed?
At the World Government Summit, UNDP leader Achim Steiner summarized what a city’s main goal should be, whichever approach they may champion: “Governments need to make sure technology contributes in a way that helps solve sustainability problems and not amplify them.”