Smart vs Smarter: How tech is changing the way our cities work

All of a sudden, someone calls 9-1-1 with a medical emergency. The nearest ambulance dispatcher is notified automatically, and within seconds, an ambulance is on the road. Due to the new smart traffic lights, the light turns green when the ambulance gets to the intersection, making the journey faster and safer, potentially saving lives. Just 2 minutes after the 9-1-1 call first came in, paramedics are on the scene. This is just one example of how developing “smart cities” and the Internet of Things can help our communities become safer and more efficient.

 

Besides giving priority to ambulances, smart traffic lights can also do the same with public transportation and pedestrians, as well as monitoring traffic congestion to optimize the signals. If one road leading to the intersection is empty, whilst another is packed at a standstill, lights can know which road to give priority to, thus improving traffic congestion (and reducing emissions). But the IoT is much more. If trash cans, lampposts, security cameras, and water systems were all connected, we could save lots of money every year, which could then be directed to other important services vital to a city, such as schools and other infrastructure projects. Lampposts could turn off after 10 at night if no one passes by (potentially also helping people sleep, as the issue of public lights has become more prominent as cities move to replace conventional lights with LED ones). Trash cans could detect when they are full, and garbage collectors could know where to go, carefully planning out their routes. Water quality could be constantly monitored to make sure that it is not poisoned, to make sure what happened in Flint, Michigan, doesn’t happen again. The uses for the technology are endless. Has it been proven to work?

 

Singapore, a small city-nation, launched a program in the last few years, installing new sensors and cameras to track just about everything, ranging from traffic to air pollution to violations in smoke-free areas. Parking is enforced using the technology. Anyone can view camera footage, thereby increasing a sense of public safety. If that weren’t enough, then Singapore is rolling out new technologies for faster internet, which allows users to download movies in high definition in just under 2 minutes! There is public Wi-Fi city, or should I say, nationwide. The IoT technologies ensure that the nation remains a safe, orderly utopia. With this technology, it is virtually impossible to get away with breaking the law. And while it most certainly improves residents’ quality of life, ensures that public money is spent efficiently, and improves safety, with cameras watching your every move, privacy becomes a concern.

 

We talk about privacy on the internet often, but we can put down our computers. We can’t get away from the sensors all around us. Security cameras have helped us a lot, but what if they got in the wrong hands? Plus, add to that a whole bunch of other sensors, tracking everything. Criminal organizations could use it to track down people. All hell could break loose. We need to have a limit on how far we’ll go. We have nothing at risk if we deploy smart traffic light signals, but sensors that catch everything? Nope. Humans have two pairs of eyes, seeing things around them, But if someone had control of millions, at the same time. It might improve security a little one day, but then the next day it can be used to spy on us citizens. There is too much of a good thing.

Obviously, all of this talk may sound crazy and paranoid. Maybe, even if the whole world was like Singapore, nothing terrible would happen. But just as history has proven, things have happened. In fact, we have heard from the likes of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning on the US government’s surveillance programs. If it had access to lots of sensors, imagine how useful it would be for spying. Perhaps this does not seem like a problem in countries that have a high trust in their government, but if it were used in dictatorships, it could effectively crush free speech. Anyway, there are lots of ways the technology can be used, for better or worse. Of course, as a society we’re going to have to decide how far we’ll go. Spying and surveillance programs are OK-as long as the public consents to them.

 

All privacy concerns aside, IoT technology is revolutionary. And that’s putting it mildly. Singapore isn’t the only city, or country, investing in the futuristic technology. Barcelona is using similar technology to manage traffic- they say congestion will be reduced by about 21%. London, San Francisco, and Oslo are all reimagining the very fundamentals of how they work on a day-to-day basis. And we have reason to believe, this is only the tip of the iceberg. We can worry about the future. We can reject the future. Or we can cope with it and shape it for the better.

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