Key to efficient resource use is metering, so that householders can see immediately how much water or energy they’re using. One valuable advance would be to make meters reactionary. Rather than being passive users of municipal services, Anthropocene citizens – and the city itself – will generate real-time responses from providers, who can make continual adjustments to improve efficiency, minimise waste and generate a more intuitive personalised operation.
Taking this a level further, so-called ”smart cities” have communication networks through sensors embedded in infrastructure, or through information sent by individuals or automatically generated by, say, programmed iPhones with GPS. These networked cities, including New Songdo City, currently being built in South Korea, or PlanIT Valley in Portugal generate intelligent adjustments to everything from street lighting to mass transit routes and times, based on real-time feedbacks. Other cities are using intelligent sensors for regulating utilities, designing flood defence systems, regulating traffic lights and flow, reducing emergency vehicle response times, speeding baggage flows through airports, optimising waste management, reducing peak load demand on electric grids and even cutting crime rates. The ability to track the world in real-time, using GPS and other systems, is generating a global nervous system, which can be used for social betterment (as well as sharing cat videos).
Rigging cities with sensors is just a first step. Designers and engineers planning smart cities a decade ago could not have predicted the way citizens themselves would become an integral part of the network.
In a Calcutta slum, a gang of 12-year-old children called the Daredevils is dramatically improving health outcomes in their area, using cheap and simple technology that wasn’t invented 20 years ago. Like so many slum neighbourhoods, the notorious Nehru Colony doesn’t officially exist, meaning it has no access to government services such as sanitation and electricity. The youngsters set out to literally put themselves on the map. They went door to door, taking photos with their mobile phones, registering residents and detailing each child born in the colony. Information is then sent by SMS text to a database that links the data to a map hand-drawn by the kids, which is overlaid to GPS coordinates. By registering their existence on Google Maps the group has doubled the rate of polio vaccination from 40% to 80%, decreased diarrhoea and malaria rates in the slum, and is lobbying for electricity.
The connectedness of citizens in the Anthropocene is key to more effective use of next-generation smart cities in all ways. Over the past few years, crowd-sourcing and collaborative mapping have revolutionised information generation online without the need for massive infrastructure projects to plant sensors across cities. For example, data points on Google Maps are built by a large network of hundreds of millions of anonymous phone-users whose devices continually send GPS-based status-updates. Its traffic app reveals how traffic is flowing in a city. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, volunteers, citizens and government agencies were able to pinpoint aid flow through the island, where needs were most urgent and where disease was breaking out.
In my next column, I'll be looking at how citizens themselves are evolving and creating the new virtual cities of the Anthropocene.