Imagine a future with driverless cars, which you can summon on your smartphone to whisk you off to places you want to go or robotic arms that serve you genetically synthesized milkshakes at your local diner and even unmanned drones that deliver packages to your doorstep as well as smart clothing that monitors your pulse and blood sugar level to remind you of the right medication to take as your body gets older and frailer.

These and a host of other gadgets are already here or soon will be, if you believe the rhetoric of smart city prophets. In his book, Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku, physicist extraordinaire explains:“‎By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared. But our tools will not be magic wands and potions but the science of computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and most of all, the quantum theory.”

Is this the unwinding path that urban cities and lives are going down?

Cities for Communities

Cities are derived from communities, which in turn are composed of people. People have feelings; feelings of want, belonging, affection, greed and compassion. All of these serve to make us unique but technology has a long way to addressing our desires and aspirations.

Understanding some of these needs goes a long way towards designing cities of the future. People firstly need to feel safe.  For public spaces, surveillance systems reduce the risk of crime but authorities must first work with citizens to focus on the right priorities. Should more money be spent on terrorist attack prone areas like airports or on simple measures to prevent purse snatching or bad road behaviour?

To deal with this problem, we should look at two parts of our psychological make up. Education is important to inculcate the right behaviour for the young, to condemn anti-social and damaging habits at the start, to teach them right from wrong and to produce better citizens in the long term. Reinforcing these with a sense of belonging to their community gives people feelings of ownership that this is their city. This in turn reduces vandalism and littering and should, in principle, lower petty crime rates.

Making cities affordable helps as well – urban living costs like housing, education, travel and food need to be affordable to get buy-in from citizens, who in turn should be gainfully employed in jobs deliberately created to generate economic prosperity.

Even though we are all selfish by nature, it is still possible to leverage on this behaviour by providing benefits like improved healthcare and well-being so that the average person will adopt more considerate behaviour and be less likely to disrupt public order.

Lastly, in a city with hard and sometimes cold infrastructure, people become isolated. Connecting individuals and communities across social networks helps but so do physical means such as footpaths, walkways and public spaces. In designing cities, let alone smart ones, we must be cognizant of the fact that all the smart gadgets in the world mean nothing if people are deprived of company, security, places to live in and products and services that they can afford and have access to.

Opening Up

So how do we transform cities for people? Having more open spaces are a good start. There is a technique known as crime prevention through environmental design or CPTED, which despite its long enunciation is a clever method of using a combination of landscaping and strategically located assistance stations to offer members of the public safe passage with no areas for luckless criminals to lurk in.

We need to encourage more life-based projects like urban farms and re-use of resources like food waste and water, using what is popularly termed the ‘living lab’ approach to testbed new ideas and technologies so that proof of concept can be established under minimal risk situations. Getting citizens out of buildings into the open has the added benefit of making a city healthier. Jobs are crucial too so growing more entrepreneurs and start-ups is a welcome thing. In addition, in the not so distant future, there will be new models of spending where we don’t have to own things such as houses and cars but we lease them and have the option to switch as our age and physical requirements change. With less need to own private vehicles, we can have fewer roads and we can commute to work through a choice of taking clean efficient public transport, sharing driverless Uber cars with one another or even walking or cycling in footpaths and bike lanes that have supplanted forbidding highways.

People Matter

In the current uncertain world of populist politics, we should embrace new technologies but in doing so we should not discard the values of humanity that have shaped us as a civilized species. Social innovation is a phrase coined not so recently about the way businesses can do good and still make money. Companies will have a softer approach to society looking for business opportunities in ways that encourage poverty alleviation, inclusiveness and helping the less-abled. If technology can help us shift the paradigm of consumeristic self-destruction more towards a model of green and positive living, that can only augur well for smart cities.

It is true money cannot buy us happiness, nor can technology alone create it. But technology can go a long way to improving the quality of life if it is applied with the thought that people do actually matter in the end.