December 6, 2012 5:00 am

Living cities

Songdo central park

Wired: smart cities feature buildings of the future

Infrastructure is the veins, the viscera and the guts of a city, the unimaginably complex network of utilities, roads, rail and communications that can seem almost invisible, yet without which cities cannot work.

The city was famously likened to a body by Peter Ackroyd in his magisterial biography of London. But, even further, infrastructure increasingly represents the synaptic network of the urban brain, the system of crucial connections that allows the contemporary city to function as a knowledge economy. What was once guts represented by the hidden tubes, pipes and wires is now the mind – the wired buzz that allows a city to be part of the explosion of communications, making even the smallest city a global presence.

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IN Urban Ingenuity

This has entailed a leap in the understanding of infrastructure. What was once a basically Roman system of physical connections, virtually unchanged for two millennia, is now something leading us towards the much-vaunted smart city.

Infrastructure is also the ultimate collective urban undertaking. Innovative infrastructure is usually expensive to install, often politically difficult to undertake and it makes demands on both the private and civic spheres, requiring national and local government to drive investment and ideas.

Yet, as the entries for the inaugural FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards showed, the breadth of what the category encompasses allows it to span the lowest to the most high-tech projects.

In the informal settlements of the global south, piping water into homes would represent an almost immeasurable good. While western cities might seem to be tinkering with arcane refinements to highly refined systems. It would have been good to see more innovative solutions for informal settlements, where small changes can make radical differences. It was interesting to note that the entries based in informal cities, notably the iKhayalami project in South Africa, attempted a nimble approach that embraced a multitude of incremental improvements, addressing various issues of quality of life.

This also raises issues of regularisation and security of tenure that so often muddy the conversation about informal settlements. By improving slums are we acknowledging them and formalising an unacceptable mode of living? Should we instead be focusing on ending the problem or should we in the global north be looking to the innovations emerging from informality and be inspired by the resilience of the poorest urbanites?

That brings us to another approach that is more about the social nature of infrastructure. The Development Innovations Group, which fosters innovation in financial services for the poor, wraps up the myriad possibilities that can allow those living in the informal margins to lift themselves into sustainable livelihoods and decent surroundings through everything from microfinance to product design.

Back in the global north it seems from our shortlist that transport has become the key to the sustainable city. Two entries broach both ends of the spectrum, from high to low tech, digital to pedal. 

Shortlisted Bitcarrier from Barcelona is a step towards creating smart cities in historical centres. We have heard much recently about Songdo in South Korea where a new town has been conceived and constructed as a smart city, fully wired and connected from the moment it is complete. But it has proved harder to adapt the existing centres (where people want to live) to smart standards.

Bitcarrier allows real-time information on traffic flows and accumulated data from GPS systems to be fed into a network with the capacity to use any system at the city’s disposal to make traffic run more efficiently. It is intelligent and innovative.

The winner, though, combines digital technology with Victorian mechanical genius, high-tech with pedal power. The Vélib’ bicycle hire system, launched five years ago in Paris, is neither new nor original but it is a simple, sustainable idea that allows short trips to be made across the city, reducing congestion and public transport overcrowding, even keeping us fit. Never as simple as they seem in retrospect, the mix of ease of payment and docking with the branding and the design of the bicycles has been integrated into a brilliant demonstration of urban ingenuity.

Cities need to change to develop, they need to move, respond and adapt. Perhaps the ideas here will inspire other cities to change the way they do things or themselves to innovate and invent new ways to make living in cities that bit better.

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