I’ve been getting back up to speed on what’s going on around the notion of so-called smart cities, ie. connected urban environments, and their impact on technology, citizens, governance and responsiveness to citizens’ needs.
There are many ways to look at the smart city concept. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll stipulate that they fall into broadly two categories, which I’m going to overstate to make a point (so they’re cranked up to 11 here):
- Technology vendors: Smart city technology (sensors networks, big data, smart grid) leads to higher efficiency, energy and cost savings, and better informed local governments, and strengthen the local economy.
- Citizens rights/governance activists: Smart cities are a dystopian control and surveillance structure, unless technology and data are owned by the citizens, decentralized, and accountability and transparency are guaranteed.
The first and simplest implementations of any smart city-ish application are things like public transport apps for users/citizens, and smart city dashboards for governments. These dashboards, so far (to my knowledge) used pretty much exclusively in model cities like Monaco, Niece and New Songdo (if at all) as well as the (in)famous control room in Rio de Janeiro during the soccer world cup, are supposed to give governments at-a-glance information about what’s going on in the city. Think traffic, population density in a given area, electricity and water usage, that kind of thing.
Now, switch of perspective. Let’s hop on over to Disney World in Florida, the inofficial wet dream of smart city enthusiasts. Disney has totally revamped the park experience by taking everything the smart city might do in the public sphere and adapted it to the very peculiar environment of a Disney theme park. At Interaction15 I saw a great talk about it by Max Burton, founder of design studio Matter, who worked on the system: Every visitor wears a smart wristband (called MyMagic+) which serves as ID, access control, movement tracker, payment system. Food pre-ordered via mobile app will be prepared the moment a visitor enters the restaurant, triggered by a sensor detecting the wristband. Photos taken during the visit are triggered, matched to an ID, and sent based on wristband information. (I highly recommend reading this piece by Ian Bogost about the MyMagic+ band.).
It’s a fascinating system, and great for a theme park context. (It would be quite disturbing if it was found in the public sphere.)
Disney theme parks are famously obsessed with providing a memorable, seamless, delightful experience to visitors, like creating the perfect soundscapes. These wristbands, and the huge, deep infrastructure supporting it, are a means to that end.
What I couldn’t figure out is what the backend of the system looks like. Is it fully automated? Partially automated, with humans just getting involved when something out-of-control shows up on the (surely ubiquitous) CCTV feeds? Is there a smart city dashboard in the City Hall at Disney’s Main Street, USA?
I’m sure there is, and it’s running at 120% of what any actual city could (and should) do. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Disney World couldn’t learn much from real cities about connected responsive systems.
So I wonder:
What can cities learn from Disney World?
Certainly there are insights to gain from Disney’s experience in the field, and lessons to be learned that could be applied to the public space. Might be about responsiveness, about the handling of data, about control and surveillance infrastructure (or lack thereof), about privacy and data protection (or lack thereof), about sensor networks and big data.
If any of you has experience with this particular neck of the woods, I’d be very curious to learn more. Please do share.