One of the big ideas in the future of urban living is the ‘smart city’. An increasing number of cities across the world are now calling themselves ‘smart’, using technology to integrate energy, transport and other elements of city infrastructure.
Exactly what makes a smart city, however, is open to debate. Esther Blaimschein, a researcher in Urban Studies from the Vienna University of Technology, believes that a smart city is about more than just technology: social innovation and the ecological implementation of resourceful solutions are important too.
“There is no one smart city,” she adds. “I think you always have to look deeply into what kind of city it is, what kind of mentality and soul the city has, and then smart can mean something completely different.”
High rise living
Esther’s research looks at the impact of technology on planning and urban living in Vienna, and in particular the city’s high rise zone. So many tall buildings results in windy conditions on the ground, and Esther describes how people drive into the tower block garages in their cars, use the lifts inside the building and then leave again in their car, cutting out any interaction with the windy environment outside.
The buildings Esther looks at are not just for living and working in; shops, cinemas and restaurants are also housed within the towering structures. It would be an exaggeration to say people live their entire lives inside the skyscrapers, but the design does have the potential to isolate people from the surrounding neighborhoods. This is something Esther would like to address, and she hopes an ongoing project to redevelop an open space next to the Danube, “to form better surroundings that are good not only for the people who are going to live there, but also for the neighborhood,” will be part of the solution.
It’s easy to assume that technology can help – an app, perhaps. But how? “I think that’s a big issue we’re now working on, what that can be,” Esther explains. “In the end we always talk about apps. We started with saying a ‘digital system’. Now it’s an app, of course. And I ask myself if it couldn’t also be other things, in public spaces, maybe facilitated by an app but also having implications there.”
Esther shares the digital civics interest in people as citizens rather than merely users of technology, something which becomes important when trying to introduce new technologies. “We’ve done a lot of focus groups and you always have those technology haters,” she says, adding that while “real human interaction” is vital, technology has a place as long as it makes things genuinely easier.
Transparency and visibility
Increasing participation in discussions around planning is a key aim of digital civics research and something that Esther feels passionately about. She believes that the key to getting people involved is not so much making them care – “if it’s something people feel emotionally attached to it’s so easy to get people engaged,” she explains – as making them aware.
“I think there are a lot of things that are important to people but they just don’t see it,” Esther says, contrasting small changes such as replacing a tree with a parking space to much larger schemes like the redevelopment of the Tyne and Wear Metro. This is much more likely to attract higher levels of public engagement because “it’s something people are very attached to; they use it every day.” Smaller planning issues might be less noticeable, but they can still be important, especially if they form part of a wider trend.
This is where technology can step in. Esther believes “it’s really about transparency and visibility of things that are happening,” even the little things like trees being removed.
That said, the introduction of technology into planning is no straightforward task. Esther sums up the difficulties, saying: “we speak two languages and we have to find a way to really understand each other. That’s important to have good outcomes, good results and a better future.”
Written by Mark Sleightholm.