A Smarter City?

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
Architecture 2030 is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the building industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Its founder, Edward Mazria, recently delivered a lecture in Vancouver, suggesting that architects are poised to become the most important profession of our age, given our vital role in solving numerous environmental and technological challenges facing the world’s cities. Architects wish this statement to be true, but sadly, reality suggests otherwise. It is partly true that designing healthy cities demands the invaluable skill sets of architects in possession of complex spatial problem-solving abilities, but to corporations in the business of selling information technology and management consulting services, optimizing the health of cities is largely dependent upon the collection and dissemination of spatially unrelated data to key government and private-sector leaders–most of whom are non-designers. One such company is IBM, who has been leveraging its data management capabilities with its three-year-old Smarter Cities initiative. For decades, IBM has remained synonymous with computers and computationally based business solutions around the world. The corporation is still one of the largest technology consulting services operating in Canada today, and it’s no wonder that it has entered the business of city-building.
To see the world through the lens of IBM’s Smarter Cities is to see how cities can optimize their various systems to attract creativity and innovation–key drivers contributing to economic growth. The Smarter Cities initiative is an eye-opening realization of the power inherent in the vast amounts of data required to quantify challenges like improving public safety, reducing traffic congestion, and increasing the level of services offered through streamlined public transportation systems. IBM’s initiative is mind-boggling in terms of developing an unprecedented level of interconnectedness that decision-makers at the municipal level are being offered by the private sector. Is this a harbinger of governments becoming increasingly reliant on private business to furnish important metrics related to city-building components such as energy use, communication, health care, social services and education?
Emerging from a global recession, we are living in a time when the world’s cities are competing for investment. Therefore, it should be no surprise that IBM has been aggressively marketing increasingly sophisticated information technology, a process that involves the collection of data, often managed in real time to coordinate a tailored system for cities to improve their competitive edge over each other. One interesting offshoot of Smarter Cities is CityForward.org, a website that allows users to compare data such as the cost of living and transportation systems within or between select cities. The site currently contains data from only three Canadian cities–Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto–but as more data is collected and disseminated, architects, planners, developers and policy-makers will be able to improve the means by which land use, utilities, energy consumption, personal income, population growth and job data can be visualized to formulate better action plans.
Another offshoot of IBM’s urban health mandate is the Smarter Cities Challenge. At the end of May, a crack team of around a dozen IBM employees arrived at Edmonton’s City Hall to examine the city’s transportation infrastructure before flying home and releasing a public report three weeks later. Edmonton is the first Canadian city to receive a Smarter Cities Challenge Grant. The $400,000 grant is part of IBM’s largest philanthropic initiative in the company’s history. The goal of the program is to give away $50 million to various municipalities and organizations over the next few years. Edmonton was one of 200 applicants from 40 countries worldwide to apply for the 24 grants. In Edmonton, as in other cities participating in the Smarter Cities Challenge, there will be no local IBM employees participating, only corporate experts of various backgrounds and nationalities.
The Smarter Cities Challenge is a curious experiment. While it is an opportunity to unleash the power of IBM’s vast corporate network and assets in terms of both technology and employees, there are no architects, urban designers or planners participating in the exercise. Any participating “architect” will likely be an “information architect” whose work will be complemented by experts in such fields as outsourcing, supply-side management, marketing and computer engineering. It is too early to evaluate the long-term implications of the entire IBM Smarter Cities business. However, its existence will irrevocably alter the course of professional consulting, and should be carefully monitored by the design profession to judge its efficacy. To be sure, Mazria was referring to the legal definition of an “architect” to save our cities from environmental ruin, rather than the disproportionate number of information architects advising on the future health of our cities. CA

For more information on Smarter Cities, please visit www.ibm.com/thesmartercity or www.cityforward.org.