There’s a huge new global mission for applied science: dismantling the dystopian impetus that is making our megacities less and less tolerable for human life. And to re-humanize the city, scientists are reaching for statistical tools, while relying increasingly on advanced computer science.
If transforming the megalopolis into a Smart City has become a multi-disciplinary scientific pursuit, then what laboratory could be better for pursuing this study than São Paulo, the largest conurbation in the southern hemisphere and the world’s 12th biggest? São Paulo is, after all, an exasperating yet invigorating city whose sheer scale alarms yet uplifts all who come to it. Judging by first world standards it is certainly no beauty – yet beautiful things are made here every day.
Social scientists, geographers and anthropologists regularly debate the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ in relation to the emerging market metropolis. The challenge is that yesterday’s mistakes cannot simply be put back in the bottle; so latter-day urbanists must use new technologies and innovation to diminish their harmful effects.
All too often however, the talk focuses on infrastructure and the built environment: how to mitigate the dominance of the motorcar, and how to roll back decades of chaotic city planning or its lack. But the real issue isn’t highways or high-rises: it’s people and how to make their lives less stressful and more fulfilled.
In early August 150 postgrad students from around the world gathered for the weeklong São Paulo Advanced School on Smart Cities, organised by São Paulo University (USP) Institute of Mathematics and Statistics (IME) Part of the challenge was to interpret mega-city challenges in terms of statistical data. This year the Advanced School – which usually caters for 75 postgrads and is part funded with support from the São Paulo Research Foundation’s (ESPCA) programme – doubled in size to 150.
In every field of study about the Smart City, the internet (and increasingly the internet of things) is a constant. Without it, it’s impossible to collect data on usage of public transport, delays in transport, public health etc. Likewise, privacy of data is a vital topic.
During the year prior to the São Paulo Advanced School, Brazilian scientists from more than 30 institutions have been working together to identify these trends in a project called The Internet of the Future for Smart Cities. This helped prepare the terrain for the Advanced School.
The work of these institutes of science and technology has been financed by a consortium of research councils including Capes (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior), CNPq (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico), Finep (Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos) and by FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation.
“This is a multi-disciplinary pursuit that goes beyond computational science,” said Alfredo Goldman, the Advanced School event coordinator. “It includes biology, law, urban planning – all areas you can think of. “The theme for this event is to see how computer scientists can work together with scientists from other disciplines to solve these problems,” Fabio Kon, one of the lecturers at the event, explained that the Smart City discipline appeals to researchers because it holds out to them the promise of helping change millions of lives.
The Advanced School’s starting-point is that technology can help to undo the mistakes of former generations of city administrators and planners, restoring some personal dignity, space and meaning amongst the roar of public transport and the jumbled palisades of high-rise architecture.
Technology itself is a player in the dynamics of the Megacity – not just an agent. It is the driving force behind clusters of innovation that thrive in large cities such as São Paulo, where connectivity is advanced. The German professor Mischa Dohler was one of the highlights of the Advanced School and his message is one of technology-based empowerment for citizens.
In the embedded video below you can hear his message, that technology has already empowered students and mega-city residents alike. Smart Cities, says Dohler, may have been studied for over 20 years, but so far there is very little change in the “citizen experience.”
Small, advanced communities in Baltic states like Estonia or in Scandinavia may have already gone completely digital, but this is not yet true for cities like São Paulo. This, says Dohler, is because it takes time for users to apply their ‘demand side’ power in forcing through change. New technology will change the operational size of a city like São Paulo over the next 5 years, he forecasts.
Video: The role of New Technologies In The Concept of Smart Cities
Produced by FAPESP.
Certainly, Smart Cities are a hot global topic for economists seeking to understand how clusters of innovation actually work.
For visiting professors speaking at events supporting the work of the Advanced School, the geography of innovation is a key subject for study in the context of successful Smart Cities. For academics like Ron Boschma, a professor in regional economics at the university of Utrecht in the Netherlands, Knowledge Intensive Entrepreneurship is an important component of the Smart City’s economic rationale. You can see a video featuring him in the link below, recorded at an international symposium on innovation in Smart Cities, held in São Paulo. You can read a detailed article about the symposium by Brazilian journalists Maria Fernanda Ziegler and José Tadeu Arantes by clicking here.
Video: International Symposium Discusses the Geography of Innovation
Produced by FAPESP.
The struggle is to find a common model which will work across different geographies, different cultures, and different levels of socio-economic progress. Hence the focus on mathematical and computational models that can be scalable to any city. Kalyanaraman Shankari a postgrad student from the University of California at Berkeley, said this was a key draw card of the Advanced School held in São Paulo.
“Almost all the apps designed for Smart Cities are designed by people around the age of 20 living in or around Silicon Valley, she said. “But that doesn’t make them applicable to the majority of people in the world. That’s why I came here, to see if interaction with researchers from other countries could help us come up with solutions that are applicable everywhere.”
Fabio Kon, one of the lecturers, agrees that first world first “IT solutions aren’t always applicable to emerging market Smart Cities. “The best examples of Smart Cities we have today are Amsterdam, Paris or Silicon Valley – all of them great places to live. But the great majority of the world’s population live in conurbations fraught with problems for public health, transportation, education and housing,” he said.
For those reasons, many of today’s smart solutions designed for wealthy westerners or elite groups of emerging market “haves,” show a lack of global vision. If the focus were on local, not global conditions, programmers and IT scientists might be able to significantly improve quality of life by making use of algorithms or evidence-based planning processes that capture the pulse of the city.
The internet of the future for Smart Cities is the enabler for a wide range of studies: how to improve vehicular traffic flows; how to monitor the mass movement of people with the aid of cellular telephony signals; and of course, how to set the balance between individual privacy and the need to collect mass data.
“This is very important because it’s a debate about privacy but also about freedom,” Says Alfredo Goldman. “We need to make a decision about how much privacy we want, and how much we want technology and data to facilitate our lives.”
Part of the research consortium’s work involves finding new tools to monitor mass vehicle movements in order to help ease traffic bottlenecks in the city.
So the São Paulo Advanced School held this August served as a public “shop window” for the work of Brazilian scientists, showing both postgrad researchers and senior academics from around the world how data science can play an important role in making Smart Cities more liveable, as well as more intelligent.
You can read a more detailed article on this topic by Brazilian journalist Maria Fernanda Ziegler by clicking here.