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The Rise of the Smart City: Urban Wonderland or Fool’s Paradise?

Alexander Armstrong chaired an expert panel including Waze UK manager Finlay Clark, technology writer Jamie Bartlett and FT journalist Anjana Ahuja.

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More humans than ever before live in cities. Technology is now being rolled out across the world’s urban areas, making day-to-day city living more pleasant, more efficient and more sustainable. For example, traffic flows are being improved by sensors that detect snarl-ups, allowing a central computer to coordinate traffic lights and even change the direction of a highway during rush hour – saving commuters time and lowering the pollution caused by stop-start congestion. Smart energy meters are allowing the power companies to provide the energy we need from the best sources, at the right times of day. But what we’re already seeing is just the beginning. By using computing, automation and big data, the cities of tomorrow will be transformed by practical, disruptive solutions, helping us tackle the energy challenge and achieve a lower carbon future.

But there’s a flip side to letting technology take over the way our cities are run. Automation opens up systems like traffic, communications and power to hackers and hijackers. Increasing reliance on AI systems and complex networks makes us more vulnerable when outages occur. And the collection of data about you and your life from millions of sensors across the city raises serious concerns about personal freedom. And then there’s the question of what kind of places we actually want to live in. Most of the urban areas people flock to are attractive because of their charm, their history and their sheer haphazardness; will smart-city technology inevitably rationalize these charms away? And let’s not forget that many of the most urgent challenges facing cities, such as inequality and crime, will never be solved by endless number-crunching and smartphone apps. So what do we really want from our cities? The kind of connectivity that comes from technology, making our cities smooth-functioning and sustainable? Or the deeper human connection and sense of meaning that technology can never provide?



Alexander Armstrong

Comedian and actor

Comedian, actor, television presenter and bass baritone singer, best known as one half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller and as host of the BBC TV game show Pointless. He has also presented the BBC’s Have I Got News for You, and appeared in many straight-acting roles, including Love Life, Life Begins, Mutual Friends and Hunderby.

Anjana Ahuja

Science journalist

Award-winning science writer at the FT where she has written extensively on the pandemic since February 2020. She was previously a feature writer and columnist at The Times and contributes to The New Statesman, BBC Newsnight and Prospect. She is co-author of Selected, a book about the evolution of human leadership.

Jamie Bartlett

Author and expert on the politics of the internet. The Missing Cryptoqueen is his latest book

Author and expert on the politics of the internet. He is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, a collaboration between the University of Sussex and the think tank Demos. He is the author of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World, and The People vs Tech. He presented the BBC series ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’ and in 2019 he wrote and presented the hit BBC podcast series ‘The Missing Cryptoqueen’, which exposed the biggest ever cryptocurrency scandal. He has also turned the story into a book, which will be published in June 2022.

Finlay Clark

UK Country Manager of Waze

UK Country Manager of Waze, the crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app. He collaborates with transport authorities, broadcasters and advertisers, showcasing how Waze data can help make cities run more efficiently. He has appeared on Newsnight, BBC and Sky News to talk about issues of congestion, transportation and mobility.

Stephen Lorimer

Smart Cities head at the Greater London Authority

Smart London Strategy and Delivery Officer at the Greater London Authority. He is responsible for the Mayor of London’s plans and programmes in smart city technologies and innovation in digital public services, including Smarter London Together, his plan to transform London into the smartest city in the world, which was released in June 2018. Before entering public service, he practised as an urban designer and has a doctorate predicting energy use in the home