Think about special effects in blockbuster Hollywood movies and your mind will likely stray to a big dumb action movie like Transformers or the Avengers. And with good reason. Films like these are linked with SFX because, simply, they’re so visible. They’re loud, brash and in your face, and the computer generated elements stand out like a sore thumb.
All are packed with special effects, but they’re invisible: we don’t register them, they simply add to our enjoyment of the movie. The most effective examples go unnoticed.
This principle stands for technology, too. Often the most creative and interesting uses of tech seamlessly blend into our normal lives; imperceptible yet indispensable. In the past we’ve seen the explosion of personal computers to tackle complex activities quickly, and in recent years, we’ve become used to using our phones for all manner of applications, from finding our way to paying for shopping.
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The next evolution in technology is surely augmented reality and the Internet of Things (IoT). And while Microsoft and Facebook may showcase the thrilling possibilities with gimmicky game demos or new devices, the real action will come at a utility level; smart cities and apps which redefine what it means to live, work and play.
So, what are the most exciting advances being made today – and what could the future of smart cities mean for architects and placemakers?
Unlocking the Smart City
Smart cities are built on a bedrock of data. Thanks to developments in machine learning, a rise in smartphone usage, ultrafast broadband and an increase in connected devices, cities have a raft of information at their disposal, and the channels to make the most of it.
Probably the most striking implementation of the IoT is Barcelona’s CityOS – a full-scale, integrated digital urban planning strategy that brings together multiple technologies to improve the lives of residents. Over 20,000 smart meters and citywide WiFi culminate in a living, talking city.
In waste management, for instance, households deposit their waste in municipal smart bins that monitor waste levels and optimise collection routes for refuse collectors. Sensors at public parks monitor the weather to control irrigation levels while smart street lights sense when pedestrians are nearby and adjust accordingly.
On the roads, sensors embedded into the asphalt lead drivers to open car parking spaces using an app – ApparkB (no longer available) – which, conveniently, also allows you to pay for parking. And the benefits are twofold: drivers find spaces quicker and the programme reduces congestion and emissions across the city, too.
For those using public transport, city planners there have taken advantage of data analysis to plot bus routes, ensuring that they hit as many green lights as possible along their journey. And bus stops themselves offer free WiFi, USB charging stations and interactive experiences. This same information is used by emergency service vehicles, changing traffic lights as they navigate towards their destination.
And this is the beauty of a real smart city: using tech and data to improve lives, save money and provide insights on how to manage infrastructure.
CityOS is a huge project; but across the world, cities are using data to make small yet important improvements.
Closer to home, for instance, the Bath Community Stroke Service offers support and advice for those who have suffered a stroke. For many of these people, accessibility in the city is a major problem – which is why members of Bath: Hacked have come together to crowd source accessibility information about the city’s locations to create a map showing dropped kerbs, disabled parking spaces, accessible shops and restaurants, and more.
In Kansas City, computerised sensors gather information about traffic, parking, foot traffic and more. The data is displayed on a public website and can be used for everything from judging clean-up operations based on the size of crowds at public events, to helping residents to spot parking spaces.
The possibilities are endless. But as more projects get underway, and the results show the benefits, the more ingrained the experience will be for the public. Imagine passing the crest of a hill as you drive into a town and, rather than just seeing a welcome sign, your device receives an information package offering details on what’s available in the area and upcoming events. Then, as you enter the town centre, you’re able to access information on public buildings, shops and amenities via AR, using apps like WikiTude or Paris’ CultureClic, all without the need for complex displays and signage.
Apps as an urban utility
Alongside this smart infrastructure are utility apps, revolutionising the way urban populations engage with their environments on a personal level.
Apps such as SmartApp which uses Smart Parking Vehicle Detection Sensors to provide drivers with information about parking choices including pricing information, availability, hours and restrictions, before using GPS to direct them to their choice.
CityMapper helps you to optimise your commute by telling you precisely which Underground carriage to get on in order to be as close as possible to the exit when you arrive at your destination. Meanwhile, Parkopedia provides detailed advice on free and paid parking wherever you want to go.
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More controversially, various apps have allowed people to rent parking spaces to one another, including those on the street – testing the limits of what the public will consider fair game for the sharing economy. Similar markets are set to become ever more pervasive, though, as people rent out their cars, belongings, storage space and even their gardens.
A smart future
While it might be tempting to imagine a smart city as a shimmering functional utopia where everything works perfectly, this isn’t grounded in the realities of city life. Cities are inherently messy; with their own quirks, issues and, yes, personalities. The job of smart technology is to work alongside this organised chaos, bringing structure, refining process and improving lives.
Smart utility give people the opportunity to interact with their environment in new and previously unimagined ways. Augmented reality is still in its infancy but, as the technology develops, virtual signage and directional information will become commonplace while digital narratives and experiences will be seen everywhere.
Meanwhile, smart cities are already using data and technology to make their services more responsive and more efficient, to better serve the needs of their citizens. As architect and urban thinker Jakob Julian Nürnberger says, “The smart city is a gift, a chance to transform old and slow systems and structures into a smart future.”