The Soft Infrastructure of Smart Cities

Thanks to technology, the systems that run our cities are becoming more and more interconnected. But how we use those systems is always going to be guided by human intelligence.
by | March 25, 2014

Cities serve as crucibles of civilization. Throughout history they've provided defining images of our advances in engineering and design but also reflections of our worst industrial and technological imperfections. Cities have been characterized in many ways. Only recently, however, have we begun to call them "smart."

In fact, "smart" is getting applied to all manner of infrastructure, from buildings and lighting to transportation and even electrical grids. One concept unifies all these diverse subjects under the "smart" label: the ability to send and receive information across connected systems.

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To better describe these connections, researchers, designers and planners are drawing parallels between them and living organisms, using terminology like "urban metabolism" (the dynamics of community resource flows) to "living buildings" and "connective tissue." "Intelligent" buildings are "occupant-aware" with adaptive control systems to adjust lighting, heating and cooling to match use patterns. More broadly, as the era of Big Data and the Internet of Things progresses, so will engineered systems with real-time and even predictive abilities. These systems will help us solve problems on the fly based on prevailing conditions.

There are, however, vast differences between smart cities and nature's infrastructure. While natural infrastructure abounds in connections, flows and feedback loops, it doesn't have centralized management or data centers, and it most certainly doesn't have a system of governance to direct its activities. Even more fundamentally, natural infrastructure doesn't run on ideas. So what one might call "soft" infrastructure -- purposes, insights, designs, policies, regulations, education -- is a defining element of any man-made system.

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Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
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