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U of C urban planning team studies smart cities

By Danielle Kim, September 13 2016 —

group of researchers at the University of Calgary are examining the social and environmental implications of “smart cities” around the world.

A smart city is a city that uses digital technology to improve efficiency and solve urban problems.

According to U of C geography professor Byron Miller — a member of the research team and an urban political geographer — there are many different ways smart cities can be interpreted or applied. He said there is no one true definition for the smart city.

“Some [approaches] are very top-down and are about controlling populations in the interest of others. Others may be bottom-up, where citizens have a lot of input and the initiatives are about enhancing participation,” Miller said.

The 2016 Rio Olympics are one example of the top-down approach. During and leading up to the games, the government implemented monitoring centres that allowed several civic departments to collaborate. Five-hundred surveillance cameras were placed around the city for security and emergency calls were directed to the centres to dispatch resolutions.

Miller says one of the questions the research team wants to tackle is who smart cities actually benefit.

“Urban politics, public participation, various types of social fields — all are impacted by smart city initiatives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. What we’re trying to do is figure out which approaches have brought benefits,” Miller said.

Some smart city endeavours focus on creating better functioning transportation systems or reducing traffic congestion. In Netherlands-based Groningen, sensors linked to traffic lights are used to improve the flow of bicycle traffic.

“One of the main problems of a cycling-oriented city is, what do you do when the weather is bad?” said Miller. “If you can guarantee that people won’t be stuck waiting at traffic lights when it’s raining, it makes it much easier to have a cycling-oriented system.”

Another common characteristic of smart cities is the idea of using data to monitor and improve the quality of life of its citizens. According to Miller, this can have implications for privacy.

“One of the approaches to smart cities would be to make data much more transparent, widely available and accessible,” he said. “Other approaches are about controlling data and using it as a means of social surveillance and control. You may have digital technologies in common but it’s a question of how they’re employed and in whose interest.”

The project is part of the university’s Eyes High research strategy, which has provided $750,000 in funding to five human dynamics projects. A team of academics from different departments will study and compare smart city initiatives in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

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