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Human development and smart cities

A recent GCAA event focused on whether better data can help city residents to thrive.

Thirty-five Gates Cambridge scholars, alumni and industry practitioners recently took part in an event to consider the impact that the push towards data-driven city planning and service provision has on humans' ability to thrive.

The human development and smart cities event was organised by the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association and took place in London at the House of St Barnabas, a social enterprise members' club committed to breaking the cycle of homelessness. It featured three speakers, who approached the issue from different angles.

Sarah Drummond, co-founder and CEO of the award-winning design consultancy We Are Snook, initiated the conversation about smart cities by considering the data we need to power happiness and wellbeing, underscoring the need to keep inequality firmly in focus when designing our cities for the future.

Li Wan, lecturer in Land Economy at Cambridge University, shared parts of his research looking at the complex relationship between socioeconomics, the changing nature of work and city transportation. He also highlighted how data can help cities get more reliable information on important measures, such as urban population. For example, analysing mobile phone data shows that, in Beijing, close to one fifth of the city’s population may not be captured by formal measurements.

Stefan Webb, Director of Digitising, Planning and Standards at Connected Places Catapult, discussed how digital transformation in planning and the built environment is reshaping the boundaries between the state, the market and the citizen. For example, though open data is often hailed as the backbone of a truly smart city, Stefan illustrated how the innovations built on the back of public data don’t always give back to the public. Government is increasingly equipped to innovate with its own data and has a role to play in mediating the use of public data to ensure public benefit.

The speakers also considered the balance between the commodification of urban data, state surveillance and the potential benefits of smart cities. As Li Wan emphasised, there is no one-size-fits-all model for tomorrow’s smart city: smart cities are about now, not the future, and are useful not as a model, but as a process for evolving towards more inclusive and sustainable places for people to live.

*Amarynth Sichel [2017] is a co-organiser of the event and did her MPhil in Planning, Growth and Regeneration. She is now a researcher at the University of Cambridge, focused on the future of cities. Christopher Molteno [2017] also co-organised the event and did his MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development. He now works in the solar industry for Lightsource BP. Gates Cambridge scholars and alumni who would like to see more of these events should email their views and ideas to co-chairs@gatesalumni.org