Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The making of a smarter city

by Gregory Saville

As the year ends, I’m remembering the air of electricity and innovation emerging at the Helsingborg 22, Smart City Summit in Sweden that I attended in November. It was a remarkable event! It triggered a thought that sticks in my mind…

By 2030 over 60% of the entire world will live in urban centers. Most of the leading industrial countries of the world are already predominantly urban: over 80% urban in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK, Chile, Sweden, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil.

It’s similar in India, that historically so-rural subcontinent of villages and farms. A decade ago, I recall listening to India’s Minister for External Affairs describe the rapid urbanization of his country, a billion-person behemoth soon to top China as the most populous country on the planet. Today it has some of the world’s largest cities.

Megacities are invariably tall cities
We’ve also seen the eruption of the megalopolis – the megacity once prophesized in Sci-Fi fare. The latest UN statistics now say it’s real:
  • 43 megacities now have over 10 million people, including the metropolitan areas of New York City, London (within the M25), Los Angeles, and Paris;
  • 6 megacities have over 20 Milion - Cairo, Mumbai, Beijing, Dhaka, Mexico City, Sao Paulo;
  • 2 have over 26 million - Shanghai and New Delhi; 
  • 1 has a staggering 37 million - Tokyo, the world’s largest city.
It seems too obvious to state that the key to our future is creating sustainable, livable and healthy cities. Not so obvious is the key to habitability: safety from crime and fear of crime.

Experimenting with lighting a public toilet
in Smart City Helsingborg - Tardis of the future


This brought to mind the H22 Smart City Summit. Unlike the Smart Growth planning program, the Smart City movement is of much more recent vintage. It talks of artificial intelligence, how Internet-of-Things data devices might better manage transport, power, water supply, schools, hospitals, utilities, and even crime. It proposes a new age of connectedness and livability.

Just imagine… no garbage trucks, massive cuts in energy use, increased quality of life, smart LED street lights with sensors to watch street conditions, faster routing for self-driving cars, smart drone shopping that avoids parking lots, automatic air pollution elimination, faster emergency response for medical and fire emergencies, and so forth.

Helsingborg is taking a close look at all this. It is spending time and money to test new Smart City ideas and it plans to take neighborhood quality of life, urban planning, and urban governance to a new level. In 2022 it will show the world in the H22 Exposition.

In November, I joined Ifeoma Ebo from the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, to present our work on SafeGrowth and CPTED in 15 high-crime New York public housing projects. The approach of our talented SafeGrowth team members was decidedly low-tech with plenty of community involvement. Summit participants seemed to see a link in our project to Smart Cities of the future.


Some think Smart Cities are a utopian dream that will destroy democracy.

Maybe that’s true! When we wrote about Smart Cities in our SafeGrowth book last year, the last chapter, A Vision for the Future, described one vision – except that was a dystopian, not utopian, vision.

I’ve also blogged here about another Smart City innovation – computer algorithms that try to predict crime, the so-called predictive policing. Since then, I’ve followed it in two cities that tried, and abandoned, predictive policing - one in California and another in my own home city. It seems we have a very long way to go.

Either way, Smart City concepts deserve careful monitoring and thinking. And given the explosive rate of urban growth around the world, we might have no better choice but to get the Smart City idea right. Helsingborg's H22 Smart City movement gives us a chance to do just that.