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Smart cities, big data and the new research agenda


Units such as the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London, and the Senseable Cities Lab at Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, USA, are pioneering smart cities research, drawing on cutting edge modelling, complexity, visualisation and computation techniques.

The new approaches were outlined at a recent CASA event in London, at which MIT took part. Smart cities involve hardware, software, data and ‘orgware’ ...we see these developments mainly in the delivery of services, such as transport services, to urban populations, says CASA. ‘They provide radically new data sources with respect to routine behaviours, with the potential to provide us with new ideas and new horizons for improving many aspects of urban social and economic life.’ CASA researchers are developing tools for online mapping, participation, modelling and tagging that define this new agenda for research and practice (see images, left).

Professor Michael Batty, Chair of the CASA Management Board, is a respected researcher into urban planning and design using mathematical modelling. Back in 2009, Batty wrote that models are being developed as much for their exploratory and discursive value in a wider participatory process of developing robust but contingent knowledge than for their ability to generate good theory. Over the past years, he has noted the ‘revolution in tracking human and other motion in digital form that enables the collection of multiple attributes at the finest of scales of urban observation’.

For a long time, he suggests, the city models we have built have tended to see cities as being in equilibrium where change occurs slowly over years and decades, but that this is changing as new data sources providing space and time streams provide us with new views of urban structure and pattern that could well demonstrate that cities are much less stable structures than we have previously perceived.

In 2012, in an editorial in Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Batty summed up some of his ideas on  smart cities and big data. In the 1980s, he says,  the focus on instrumenting the city using network technologies was

enshrined in the idea of the wired city. But what has changed is the development of ‘ubiquitous devices of comparatively low cost that can be deployed to sense what is happening over very small time scales – seconds and faster – as well as over very fine levels of spatial resolution’. Such devices, he writes, range from purpose-built sensors to individual hand-held devices that are as mobile as those using them provide massive capability to store and transmit data that pertains to movement and activity levels across space and time. ‘Some of the most elaborate applications,’ he adds, ‘involve transport’.

Integrating and linking data

There are vast quantities of information, he says, ‘much of it of doubtful quality so far but it will improve’, associated with social media and networking. ‘The idea of integrating much of this diverse data together to add value to our conceptions of how it might be linked to other more traditional data, as well as focusing it on specific ways to make cities more efficient and more equitable, has come to define the smart cities movement.’

Many large-scale IT companies, he notes, see the next great wave of applications related to groups rather than individuals, and these are seen most clearly in how large groups behave with respect to routine activities in cities. ‘IBM, Cisco, Siemens, and a host of other companies are investing heavily in systems that can be used to mine traffic and related data which lie at the basis of an improved understanding of how cities function, as well as enabling new methods of improving the efficiency of such systems with respect to their operation and the quality of the experience from the point of view of the traveller. We are just beginning to grasp the nature of “big data”,’ he suggests.

‘This kind of data is available continuously and in this sense, it does not only encapsulate routine and relatively stable behaviours but, over sufficiently long periods of time, one can begin to extract changes to the structure and form of the city and the way people behave.’

New data begets new theory, notes Batty. ‘Most urban theory, and indeed planning and design 50 years or more ago, was predicated on radical and massive change to city form and structure through instruments such as new towns, large-scale highway building, redevelopment, and public housing schemes. Planning was little concerned with smaller-scale development except its design, for nowhere was the function of the city understood in terms of how small spaces and local movements sustained the city. New data and big data are changing all of this. 

‘Smart cities and big data may be the hot topics of today, but the implications of how the city is being wired, how it is generating new data, how this data might force new theories and models relevant to our understanding, how we might use our strategic models and intelligence to plan the city, building on this new understanding – these are all crucial questions to be explored. Our need to understand how all these dimensions are coalescing, merging, complementing, and substituting for one another has never been more urgent. It constitutes a major challenge for planning and design in the near future.’

Catch up with CASA speaker at Modelling World 2012


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