Smart Cities

As always, these are fast-typed, barely edited, streams of consciousness. No accuracy implied. 🙂

These are my notes from the Smart Cities Plenary.

“Imagine an intersection that can calculate the trajectory of all the vehicles coming at it, and it detects that one of the vehicles is coming too fast to stop, so we don’t change the pedestrian sign to walk or the other signal to green until that car is safely through. That kind of calculation is going to require HPC right at the intersection. You haven’t got time to send it off somewhere and wait for the calculation to happen and come back.” Charlie Catlett on the value of High Performance Computing (HPC) to Smart Cities.

We hear a lot about Smart Cities these days, but what actually are they? I loved this comment from Debra Lam: Smart Cities are the application of technology & data to improve our quality of life.

Or this one from Charlie Catlett that defines the problem beautifully: “How do we take our computational science capabilities and apply them to the challenges that cities have?”

“When you look at a city it is not a monolithic thing. It’s a collection of neighbourhoods.”

Where you live in that city makes a significant difference to your quality of life

You can track respiratory disease and there are significant differences between neighbourhoods. Where you live also impacts on what opportunities you have – eg what jobs are within reach.

We have systems now that detect food safety violations a week earlier than previous systems, by clever use of data.

“We need to start thinking about cities as integrated, complex systems that can’t be studied by just pulling one system out and not looking at it in the context of the entire system, the entire city.”

As Shakespeare said, “What is the City but the people?”

Smart Cities are about making life better for people. By building better spaces that foster communities. By instrumenting our traffic control systems – traffic lights and the like – to prevent accidents and decrease congestion. By improving access to healthcare and education. By predicting future problems such as flooding and making sure there is infrastructure in place to deal with it.

One beautiful example, which I think came from Michael Mattmiller, Chief Technical Officer of Seattle (to me it’s something of a revelation that a city has a CTO!) is of a severe rain event that caused flooding. Using HPC we can now model cities (based on recorded rainfall data) and predict where the flooding will be worst. Then we can send repair crews in to those areas to make sure that any burst or blocked stormwater drains get fixed straight away. That way problems remain minor instead of becoming catastrophic failures.

Smart Cities aren’t about technology, they’re about making life better. As Debra Lam put it: “I’m not starting with the technology, because that means you’re starting with the solution, which probably means you don’t really understand the problem.”

Step 1 in Smart Cities is to identify problems and opportunities. What do people need? How do we make life better? Technology is a path to that. But it’s not the point of the exercise, which people sometimes forget. Technology is just a powerful tool in our quest for better lives.

For people who are interested in City data, Seattle has an open data policy by preference, so there is a treasure trove of data available at

Of course, instrumenting cities and collecting data is challenging from a privacy and civil liberty point of view, so we need to be talking about these issues and working out policies and approaches that work in different cultures. As we were told last night, different places have different cultures and different concerns. “A traffic light is an instruction in Milan, a suggestion in Rome, and a Christmas decoration in Naples.” We have to fit the solutions to the context. The fundamental principles of change management tell us that we need to get buy in – which means communities need to be involved in making their cities smarter. They need to identify the problems and be part of the construction of solutions, rather than having solutions imposed on them.

For more information on Smart Cities, check out Nick Falkner’s pieces in The Conversation.


About Dr Linda McIver

Dr Linda McIver pioneered authentic Data Science and Computational Science education with real impact for secondary students and founded the Australian Data Science Education Institute in 2018. Author of Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World, Linda is an inspiring keynote speaker who has appeared on the ABC’s panel program Q&A, and regularly delivers engaging Professional Development for Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Educators across all disciplines. A passionate educator, researcher and advocate for STEM, equity and inclusion, with a PhD in Computer Science Education and extensive teaching experience, Linda’s mission is to ensure that all Australian students have the opportunity to learn STEM and Data Science skills in the context of projects that empower them to solve problems and make a positive difference to the world.
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