It’s one thing to invent a clever new technology, quite another to work out a canny way of using itby Jay Elwes / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
How can we put technology to the best possible use? If cities can blend new technology into their infrastructure, the potential rewards are vast. Seema Malhotra, writing in this month’s print issue of Prospect, gives some examples of the innovations adopted by Barcelona to reduce waste. Their simplicity makes them all the more appealing. What these examples show is that technological complexity is not always the issue—Barcelona’s streetlights brighten when a motion sensor detects movement. The motion sensor is hardly a new invention: this is the clever re-purposing of existing technology. Other technologies are new twists on an old form, and these will be much more disruptive—the electric car, for example. Their uptake will pose huge challenges and as Iain Stewart says, the tendrils of that problem extend far and wide: who will install the electric car infrastructure? And further ahead, if vehicles become self-driving, how will the enormous data flows be managed? And what about driving abroad—will there be global standards? And then there’s insurance: if your autonomous car crashes into mine, whose fault will it be? This sort of thing cuts right across government departments and extends far into the private sector, which makes it worrying to hear a politician like Stewart saying he has no clear sense of what a smart city would actually be. Perhaps his candour is instructive—if the modish “smart” moniker is so hard to pin down, it might be best to get rid of it altogether. Any term that can be applied so widely is on its way to becoming meaningless anyway. A better approach might be for politicians to worry less about what is and isn’t “smart” and a little more about the failure of politics to keep pace with technological progress overall. There aren’t any scientists in government—and there are hardly any in parliament. And if technology is to figure more centrally in political planning, then all politicians need to be more alive to the potential of new technologies. Hiving them off into a category called “smart” will not help with that. It overlooks the central place that new technologies have always played in human progress. The modern world would be impossible without advances in the technology of sanitation during the late-19th and early-20th century, without telephone technology of the mid-20th century, and without the mass market computer technology of our present day. The more Eeyorish of economists think that we have wrung all possible gains from our new computer age—but it’s one thing to invent a clever new technology, quite another to work out a canny way of using it. Marconi didn’t invent the radio, Edison didn’t discover electricity, nor Gates the microprocessor. They were just the ones who saw, brilliantly, how to make use of what was there. Because really, the Smart Cities issue is far broader than the question of simply how to manage the urban environment—important though that is. It forces us to confront the question of how governments and society can adapt to sudden jumps in technological capability and to put the question: are we making the best of what we have? In recent decades those technological changes have been accelerating at a startling rate. The average person now carries a smartphone in their pocket with the processing power of a 1990s supercomputer. The trouble is that technology has progressed so quickly that it’s left politicians in the dust—the Cambridge Analytica scandal has made that gulf painfully clear. It’s time to catch up. And in the long run, that’s not a challenge for a single politician, or committee or government or city. That’s a challenge for us all.