08/16/2011 10:49 EDT | Updated 10/16/2011 05:12 EDT

Towards More Resilient Cities


There is no doubt the word "smart" is overplayed and devalued. A good example is smart meters for measuring home electricity. A smart meter is only as smart as the software and feedback loops generated from its data -- without feedback a smart meter is dumb.

In Ontario we have the largest penetration of electrical smart meters in our homes almost anywhere. Yet, very few residents even know they have one. What about the day that all home electricity meters are smart? Do we enter into the world of super smart?

It's all about entering a world where we can "talk" to the objects around us and they can "talk" to us. This is happening regardless of any "smart" initiatives. The big question in my mind is, what should we be doing with this technology to make our cities more resilient (a goal I like more than smart)?

Sensors that can measure the impact of our actions and the things we use are becoming cheaper and more prevalent. For one thing, these ubiquitous sensors can be harnessed to rid us of the myriad of inefficiencies that we can no longer afford in a resource-constrained world. For example, we can reduce electrical consumption without losing the convenience we have become used to. We can use data and benchmarking to reward good behaviour and discourage bad behavior. We can use data to facilitate funding of retrofits in ways that have not been exploited before. We can spot and reduce the enormous amounts of waste in our system -- water leakage, phantom load in our electrical system, fuel in our transportation system. We can improve the air we breathe in our buildings and at home if we finally start measuring and benchmarking it. We can optimize our use of resources by clever application of algorithms that can outperform the humans that currently do these tasks.

Examples are: optimization of building resource use, improving the quality of air we breathe, the water we drink, reducing the fuel we need for transportation, reducing the water we need for agriculture, reducing medical errors in our hospitals, improving the reach of health care. Cell phones are "smart" but I believe that the real value of cell phones is in how they have transformed lives and given users tools to improve their resilience through access to sustainable commerce in ways that were not possible before.

So, in short, I think we should turn our attention away from lionizing "smart" and focusing the data that we are now acquiring, through the ubiquitous use of sensors, toward making a our cities more resilient. A city with huge slums is not resilient. A city with inefficient transportation is not resilient. A city that wastes water and energy is not resilient. A city with a monolithic food distribution system is not resilient. A city with a monolithic energy infrastructure is not resilient. A city that does not foster use of local food production is not resilient. So resilience is the adjective that describes a city that is sustainable. More resilience equals more sustainability. Let's be smart and focus on resilience and sustainability will follow.