Big data not a city panacea, say researchers

Big data and smart thinking can be good for cities, but they won’t provide the answers to today’s complex urban problems. That is the conclusion of a position paper produced by experts from the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management and Engineering (SCME), working with its Institute for Environmental Analytics.

Cities face multi-faceted challenges around such factors as: population growth, resilience, resource efficiency, income inequality and demographic change. Proponents argue that technology can be leveraged to enhance economic development and quality of life in cities and in people’s daily lives. But the report cautions, “There is a real danger that by focusing exclusively on the alluring ‘smart’ technology aspects of cities, that this distracts and deviates us from following a truly sustainable path of urban development.”

Key messages of the paper, Smart and sustainable – Using big data to improve people’s lives in cities, include:

  • Integrated approach: Cities need to develop an integrated approach to smart and sustainable thinking, which joins up the best elements of smart technologies and sustainable practices. Developing inclusive visions for cities is fundamental to this goal, and putting people at the heart of any future vision for a city is critical to success
  • Innovation is vital: Cities need to recognise the benefits of using big data to improve the quality of life for their citizens through improved decision-making and better information and customer service. This needs to recognise the challenges around privacy and security
  • Interdisciplinary thinking matters: Better R&D is needed to help provide solutions for today’s urban challenges. Developing partnerships between civic society, business and academia is vital and these must also connect through to the SME sector. Interdisciplinarity, or interweaving different disciplinary approaches, must be at the heart of R&D in smart and sustainable cities and big data solutions.

Tim Dixon, professor of sustainable futures in the built environment in SCME said: “We need to recognise the key challenges associated with these concepts, and ensure that we use ‘smart and sustainable’ thinking and innovative big data to improve peoples’ lives in our cities.”

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