Smart Cities and the Seamy Underbelly

E-mail Melanie Martella

As a fan of science fiction, I've been intrigued by the way current technology is trending toward the kind of Future Life depictions that you get in some science fiction novels. Houses that can recognize you and adjust the local environment for your comfort. Smart devices salted throughout the environment, all of which are capable of talking to other devices and giving you information that you need, when you need it. It's heady stuff.

So Bruce Sterling's Spime Watch over at is an educational and sometimes inspiring read as it collects relevant stories and news releases related to spimes. Sterling coined the term to refer to "a currently-theoretical object that can be tracked through space and time throughout the lifetime of the object," according to Wikipedia. To have a spime, you need the convergence of six enabling technologies. You need a cheap, small way of remotely and uniquely identifying an object over a short range, you need some way to locate the object on Earth, you need data mining of large data sets, you need tools to virtually construct almost any object, you need rapid prototyping to convert the virtual object into a real one, and you need cheap and effective ways to recycle the object.

As far as I can tell, we've got the low-power electronics, low-power and cheap sensors, a variety of wireless protocols, clever software, GPS and other localization technologies…about the only thing missing from the list is the cradle-to-cradle design and companies are working on applying that philosophy to their products and processes.

We've reached the stage of having pilot projects for Smart Cities; rolling out limited systems of sensors, communicating among themselves and back to some central location, coupled with a range of data aggregation and analysis software to make sense of the data acquired. Louise Joselyn's article in New Electronics, , "Smartening up the city with smart metering," describes the projects currently underway, conducted by who of France Orange Telecom's research labs.

It's all very inspiring and cool. However, (I'm sorry, I've been watching a ton of Dirty Jobs, so bear with me) a smart city still needs its storm drains to be checked, cleaned, and repaired; its light bulbs and batteries to be changed; its vermin eradicated or at least kept down to a dull roar; its infrastructure still needs maintenance and repair; and you still need to manage waste, even if you figure out how to decrease the volume and increase recycling. There's a lot of mucky and hard grunt work that goes on in any functioning city to keep it functioning. Making a city smart doesn't mean that those jobs go away. My hope is that making a city smarter changes those jobs for the better.