The Rise of the Smart City: Urban Wonderland or Fool’s Paradise?

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More humans than ever before live in cities. Technology is now being rolled out across the world’s urban areas, making day-to-day city living more pleasant, more efficient and more sustainable. For example, traffic flows are being improved by sensors that detect snarl-ups, allowing a central computer to coordinate traffic lights and even change the direction of a highway during rush hour – saving commuters time and lowering the pollution caused by stop-start congestion. Smart energy meters are allowing the power companies to provide the energy we need from the best sources, at the right times of day. But what we’re already seeing is just the beginning. By using computing, automation and big data, the cities of tomorrow will be transformed by practical, disruptive solutions, helping us tackle the energy challenge and achieve a lower carbon future.

But there’s a flip side to letting technology take over the way our cities are run. Automation opens up systems like traffic, communications and power to hackers and hijackers. Increasing reliance on AI systems and complex networks makes us more vulnerable when outages occur. And the collection of data about you and your life from millions of sensors across the city raises serious concerns about personal freedom. And then there’s the question of what kind of places we actually want to live in. Most of the urban areas people flock to are attractive because of their charm, their history and their sheer haphazardness; will smart-city technology inevitably rationalise these charms away? And let’s not forget that many of the most urgent challenges facing cities, such as inequality and crime, will never be solved by endless number-crunching and smartphone apps. So what do we really want from our cities? The kind of connectivity that comes from technology, making our cities smooth-functioning and sustainable? Or the deeper human connection and sense of meaning that technology can never provide?

We were joined by Anjana Ahuja, the award-winning science writer ; Jamie Bartlett, one of the UK's leading thinkers on the politics and social influence of the internet; Finlay Clark, UK Country Manager of the crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app Waze; and Stephen Lorimer, Smart London Strategy and Delivery Officer at the Greater London Authority. The debate was chaired by comedian, actor and television presenter Alexander Armstrong.

This event, hosted by Shell in partnership with Intelligence Squared, brought together big thinkers from diverse backgrounds to debate how the digital revolution taking place in our cities is impacting our lives. Join us to learn how together we can #makethefuture today.

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