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Are smart cities the future of human habitation?

In simple terms, a smart city unifies a plethora of technologies in a way that is supposed to make the day-to-day lives of its residents healthier, more sustainable, more convenient, and safer. Additionally, an estimate in early 2017 put the total cost saving to governments worldwide at $19 billion. For reference, this is more than NASA’s entire annual budget.

So, the savings are substantial, but what are some of the other major benefits of having a smart city? Additionally, what—if any—are the drawbacks? In 2014, Singapore launched its own smart city project, which includes tracking the exact movement of all vehicles, detecting whether a resident is smoking or littering, measuring crowd density, and analysing a bevy of other functions. It does this by incorporating big data, the internet of things, and a series of interconnected CCTV cameras. While it’s nice to keep a city safe and clean, such control over its citizens has an eerie 1984 vibe to it, don’t you think?

Indeed, this criticism—especially in the wrong hands—could lead to a totalitarian state that could and would exploit excessive surveillance and big data to potentially implement predictive policing. Such ramifications would have serious ethical implications. So much so, in fact, that the subject of surveillance in smart cities has necessitated its own Wikipedia article.

However, in a similar vein to how we are now accustomed to search engines using our search data to advertise to us directly (or sell on this information to third-party advertisers), it might be that the allure of convenience, safety, and quality of life will override such concerns. Like many things in life, there is no perfect solution that will please everyone; indeed, if there were such a solution, there would be no need for the numerous amounts of political or economic ideologies that are firmly held—sometimes in stark contrast (think: capitalism versus communism). Even a doctrine such as egalitarianism (which strives to prioritize equality for all) is not without it flaws. Therefore, the true future of smart cities is not just a question of the advancement of technology or economy; rather, it also must consider the moral implications that such a framework would instigate.

Why should energy companies be concerned with the existence of smart cities?

Like mentioned above, smart cities have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people; however, governments and its people would be best advised to implement safeguards that protect residents from having their liberty suppressed (or habits exploited for profit). For an example of a successful safeguard, think of how the American Constitution safeguards liberty.

Since this is an energy blog, allow me to use a hypothetical example that pertains to the energy sector. Imagine that there are two competing electric companies in the smart city. Let’s use a Wizard of Oz reference and call the smart city ‘Emerald City’. Suppose that energy company A (which I will call ‘Electric Avenue’) has no access to the information gleaned from the data acquired by Emerald City. On the other hand, let’s suppose that energy company B (which I will call ‘Electric Boogaloo’) has unlimited and unrestricted access to the data that is acquired by Emerald City.

As you can imagine, having access to such information would be of a considerable advantage to Electric Boogaloo. It would be the equivalent of one side in a military conflict removing the fog of war, allowing it see every movement and listen in to every strategic meeting throughout the course of the conflict. Electric Boogaloo could, for example, levy a tax against individual people who drive at night, since they would be benefitting from the glow of street lights. Such an example might sound a bit on the ridiculous side, but consider this: While it is common practice for electric companies to charge rates according to what zip code you live in, imagine if you were billed according to your salary. Even if your salary isn’t directly known by Electric Boogaloo, it might be estimated by knowing that you (via tracking movement of your car) regularly frequent the theatre and shop at Louis Vuitton.

Smart cities show a lot of promise, but it is of paramount importance that governments and companies are held to extremely stringent regulations. Incorruptible checks and balances are required for smart cities to work ethically, but such a task might be easier said than done.HHope

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