Simulating the possibilities of ‘smart’ cities through big data

This is a blog post that I wrote for Urban Transformations

I recently attended a conference, hosted at Wilton Park, called “Disrupting cities through technology”. The event brought together a diverse group of people, from business, academia, and the public sector, all from a variety of career stages and from different countries. The main focus of the conference was to discuss what ‘Smart Cities’ are, what technological and social developments are driving them, and how they can be guided in a direction that genuinely makes cities better places to live for everyone. For me, one of the most encouraging things that came out of the discussion was that, on the whole, no one has a clear idea about what a smart city is, or what they will be like in the future. This gives us a real opportunity to build the kinds of cities that we want, not just those that are the most profitable for some organisations.

I was invited to the conference by the sponsors, Improbable, because I have been using their Spatial OS software to develop simulation of urban dynamics. This work, entitled Simulating Urban Flows (surf), aims to use a technique called agent-based modelling to simulate the daily movement patterns of virtual individuals as they go about their business. For more information about the prototype simulation, see:

Importantly, the model will use data from different sources – ranging from ‘traditional’ censuses and surveys to more novel sources such as public social media communications or internet of things data – in order to represent a range of different groups who might be present in one source but not another. Smart cities will inevitably revolve around generating large, new sources of data to understand the dynamics of cities, and I would like to be able to use some of these data to improve the quality of the urban flows simulation.

Although the conference has brought up more questions than it answered, the discussion was extremely interesting and I expect that most people will think about smart cities (both the prospects and pitfalls) in a very different way.

For more information about some of these issues, the reader might be interested in this recent publication in The Conversation: “How big data and The Sims are helping us to build the cities of the future”.