Slicker city

London is hoping to transform itself from Victorian capital to futuristic metropolis, but reality seems to be getting in the way.

Blank generation? London needs to invest in home-grown innovation to become a "smart city"

Where is your favourite place on Google Earth? For the past couple of years I have been regularly checking to see progress on Songdo, a new city that is being built on reclaimed ground outside Incheon, Korea. As I type the name into my iPad, the globe on the screen turns and as the satellite swerves, the focus hurtles towards the earth again until you can see just the outline of a city.

It is a pattern of worksites and skyscrapers – a city in the making. Songdo is a new kind of metropolis: the smart city, built according to the new rules of the information age. This is a connected city, in which monitors and sensors relays real-time data to regulate the urban fabric. The new city is no longer a static collection of places but “a computer in open air”. Every part of the infrastructure is connected to each other, all running on Cisco’s U.Life technology.

For example, street cameras report on the flow of pedestrians on the street and brighten or dim the pavement lamps accordingly; radio frequency identification tags are attached to car number plates to watch traffic and react to congestion; monitors on building and roads will report on conditions to avoid costly works or unnecessary delays; there will be weather forecasts that can prepare the power grid for surges in demand when it gets cold. At other times, the grid will monitor usage and flows and predict demand as well as search for efficiencies, and there will also be a smart grid for water and waste.

Each home will become smarter, too: touch pads will control temperature, lighting and track energy use. Roof gardens will be planted to reduce the “heat island” effect and reduce storm water run-off. There will be no waste collection as everything will be processed by a centralised pressure driver collection method. If Songdo is the city of the future, where does this leave London? Can the capital – with its Roman street plan, Victorian infrastructure and endless sprawling suburbs – ever be a smart city? There had been talk about the capital transforming in time for the Olympics, but the reality appears less impressive.

There have been a variety of initiatives: in May it was announced that a series of experiments were going to be conducted by the technology company Living PlanIT in North Greenwich. In time for the Olympics, Transport for London announced that wifi was going to be available throughout the Tube network. The London Datastore was set up on 2010 in order to share government information. All of these projects came heralded as the dawn of smart London; but the truth is not so clear.

The original idea was to have free wifi at 80 stations, yet in June it was announced that the scheme would start with just seven. Now, this number has risen to 40. Universal wifi is a good idea but only offering a service in Tube stations feels like a compromise. The Tube system is going to be coping with unprecedented numbers of visitors this month: do we really want to get stuck behind someone checking their emails?

The Living PlanIT project in North Greenwich is a small-scale attempt to retrofit the city to be more like Songdo – with smart lamp posts, connecting water, transport and energy services. The project is being conducted in a small test area around the O2 and as Gary Gutlack writes on Gizmodo: “If it doesn’t work, no one will really notice”. But it could still offer some interesting results. Smart technology allows the city to collect the kind of information that has previously been impossible. It will help us make better decisions about transport, utilities and how we use energy.

But this kind of technology comes with a warning: Living PlanIT is a software partnership offering the “Urban Operating System” [UOS TM], the smart city in a box, and it is not the only one out there. Big players such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Accenture and McKinsey are all entering the debate on the intelligent city, the smart grid and next-generation buildings – developing the tools to bring efficiency, sustainability and a connected metropolis. These big companies are talking to city halls, offering end-to-end solutions, the complete package to retrofit the everyday city for the 21st century with a very hard sell. One can’t help imagining a dystopian future (think Blade Runner) in which software companies have taken over the city.

This kind of technology can also be used for murkier motives. The Olympics are going to prove just how advanced London has become in terms of security and surveillance. According to Stephen Graham, an urban geographer at Newcastle University, the city has become the latest battleground in the war on terror. New techniques – such as drones, face recognition software, helicopter snipers – learned from the battlefields and Green Zones of Iraq and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, are being employed in preparation for the games. The city has been on high alert, with the UK ’s greatest mobilisation of troops and hardware since 1945. These technologies are not going away once the games have ended.

What if the city’s information were in the hands of the people who use the city rather than the politicians or software companies? London can never be like Songdo but the capital should define its own criteria for being a digital city and use its indigenous expertise to make the city a better place. As Carlo Ratti, the head of MIT’s SENSEable lab, the leading research group in smart cities, has often said: these new innovations are not solely about technology but about people.

In 2009, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, launched the London Datastore (data.london.gov.uk) filled with information on everything from abandoned cars and education league tables, to the expense account details of London government members. In time it also was allowed to display real-time data for the Tube system, the police and local NHS.

The Datastore makes freely available some of the raw material that can turn London into a smart city. Simply making the data accessible without restriction promotes greater dialogue between citizens and government but it also enables a plethora of good ideas. The data has already inspired the development of numerous apps, developed by policy fanatics, budding entrepreneurs or socially minded hackers, that change the way we use the city: from availability of Boris bikes to real-time bus information.

It is not just the Datastore that is telling us about the city. Using an unexpected variety of sources, the Mapping London group at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL have uncovered a number of different ways that people travel and use London: where the most Flickr images are taken, why Piccadilly is the most popular place to tweet, the timed usage of Oyster cards throughout a 24-hour period. It also produces the City Dashboard (citydashboard.org/london), which is essential for every desktop, charting everything from the average happiness in London, using data taken from the LSE “mappiness” project, to air pollution and Tube line statuses.

For your personal navigation of the city, there are now a variety of apps such as Streetmuseum that use your smartphone to layer archive images of London. The Londonist website has also developed its own historical readings of the city, using GPS to devise a map of the births and deaths of all the English monarchs, as well as the layering of historical maps to see what the ground beneath your feet looked like in the 18th century and earlier. With a smartphone in your pocket, it may now be almost impossible to get lost in London but one can go on any number of digital adventures.

Many of these ideas are coming from Shoreditch in east London, which in November 2010 was named by David Cameron as Tech City, the white-hot centre of Britain’s digital economy. Elizabeth Varley, founder of the community workspace TechHub, situated near what’s been nicknamed Silicon Roundabout, says that while there has been progress, there is still much to do to make London a global competitor in digital technology.

Despite international marketing campaigns, it is the organic growth of a local industry in the warehouses and old office space of Shoreditch that makes the place so exciting. But there is still not enough cheap commercial space for new start-ups and the broadband bandwidth to the neighbourhood needs updating.

More importantly, Varley feels that London will not truly become a smart city until two things happen. First, it needs to stop comparing itself to Silicon Valley and find its own distinct genius. Varley is particularly excited by the growing relationship between the tech sector and universities, with schemes such as the Digital City Exchange at Imperial College. London may not be home to the next Facebook or Google but it could have a huge impact in health care, sustainability or transport.

Second, in addition to attracting big foreign companies to London, the government should invest in the first stages of home-grown innovation, offering seed funding to those at the start of their careers. If London is to be a smart city it has to invest in people, not just technology.