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Urban Computing

Increased urbanization is putting a strain on the limited shared urban resources, for example, road space, energy, and clean air and water. Smart cities leverage technology to manage such shared resources more efficiently, thereby improving citizens’ quality of life.

The term “smart city” has been used extensively by technologists and the media to describe a place where modern technologies, mostly information and communications technologies (ICTs), are widely used by local governments, institutions, and citizens. Technology is always seen as a way forward. “The more, the better. They will be beneficial to citizens eventually, in one way or another.”

Or will they?

Well, maybe, but not necessarily.

We frame the discussion within the Sense-Analyze-Actuate paradigm, a model leveraged by most smart city solutions. The Sense step entails gathering data from existing or newly deployed dedicated sensors, owned by public agencies and businesses, as well as contributed by citizens. In the Analyze step, these disparate and often unreliable sources of data are fused to improve the authenticity of data (improving detection, confidence, reliability, and reducing ambiguity) as well as extending its spatial and temporal coverage. In this step, optimization techniques, and artificial intelligence, in particular, allow to reason on the data, making resource management decisions in a centralized or decentralized approach. In the Actuate step, the results of the analysis can either be presented to human operators, i.e., visualized for decision support, or used to directly actuate the changes, adapted to the specific urban resource.

For a city to turn into a smart city, suitable framework conditions have to enable and enhance the required creativity of the inhabitants. If new technologies are meant to establish fast connections between citizens, also in order to strengthen channels for innovative activities, then smart institutions should operate under framework conditions, which integrate the employees to allow optimal functioning of these institutions with respect to the societal goals of a smart city.

Humane is not only one of the dimensions of a proposed solution. It is the dimension to guide all the others. In fact, every city project should start with a clear definition of what is the actual citizen’s problem that is being solved, and its results should be measured against that goal. For instance, a control center is a costly and useful tool to measure and orientate car traffic in the city. But its cost should be evaluated and compared against other solutions that improve mobility of citizens in town, not the mobility of cars. There is a subtle difference here. The mobility of car drivers is not a measure of citizen’s mobility as a whole. A proper bike lane or an improvement in the public transportation system, for instance, may offer much better and cheaper solutions when the focus is changed from the car to the citizen.

Once citizens’ wishes, interests, and needs are clearly identified, technology will be, of course, part of the solution. It is just a question of resetting priorities: people and the environment first; then, comes everything else.

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