By james ransom4 minute Read
An abandoned mine shaft beneath the town of Mansfield, England, is an unlikely place to shape the future of cities. But here, researchers from the nearby University of Nottingham are planning to launch a “deep farm” that could produce 10 times as much food as farms aboveground. Deep farms are an example of what the latest wave of smart cities looks like: putting people first by focusing on solving urban problems and improving existing infrastructure, rather than opening shiny new buildings.
These smart cities look nothing like science fiction. In fact, the sleek, futuristic visions often used to promote smart cities tend to alienate residents. Isolated high-tech buildings, streets, or cities can foster social inequality, and even free WiFi and bike-sharing schemes mainly benefit the affluent.
So, instead of chasing ribbon-cutting opportunities in city centers, planners, community leaders, and researchers are coming together to tackle mundane but serious issues, such as improving poor-quality housing, safeguarding local food supplies, and transitioning to renewable energy.
In my own research, commissioned by the British Council, I looked at how new projects and partnerships with universities in eight European cities are making life better for residents, through the clever use of technology. You may already be living in a smart city—here’s what to look out for.
These new smart cities are getting communities and universities involved, alongside big companies and city authorities. This has helped shift the focus of smart-city projects onto the needs of residents. During my interviews in cities across Europe—from Bucharest, Romania, to Warsaw, Poland, and Zaragoza, Spain—I found that university students and researchers have played an active role in this, consulting with residents and working with city hall to promote cooperation between citizens and local institutions.
Universities produce a wealth of knowledge about the kinds of problems facing cities, and there is often a need to make more people aware of new research, so they can shape it, use it, and build on it. In Milan, the City School initiative brings together the municipality of Milan and six local universities to discuss issues facing the city. Universities take turns to showcase research and activities, and city officials test urban-policy ideas with experts.
But above all, communities are now part of the conversation. The EU-funded Sharing Cities program, led by city halls and universities in London, Lisbon, and Milan, has the audacious goal of proving that at least half of the 15,000 locals affected by improvements have actively participated in the process. City authorities have worked with residents to design and implement smart-city technologies including smart lampposts, energy management, and e-mobility (smart parking, car sharing, electric charging