Smart cities, sensors and their potential side effects

Your future city will be networked to the hilt with sensors that will enable new "urban actors"---think bridges, bricks and traffic signals---that will communicate with its inhabitants. But as cities become more networked there are risks to their evolution.

Your future city will be networked to the hilt with sensors that will enable new "urban actors"---think bridges, bricks and traffic signals---that will communicate with its inhabitants. But as cities become more networked there are risks to their evolution.

That's the message from Adam Greenfield, head of design direction Nokia for user interface and services at Nokia. Greenfield, speaking at the Supernova conference (follow on Twitter) in San Francisco, paints a picture that is exciting yet threatens the purpose of cities. Civic responsibilities and norms will change as these "networked information technologies increasingly condition cities," said Greenfield.

The argument: Cities have evolved because they provide the opportunity for reinvention and ability to be anonymous. A networked city fabric is a threat. To wit: Do you really want to know everything about your neighbor? If you did know your neighbor's religion, thoughts and social circle you may know too much. Simply put, sensor-laden cities may become decidedly less comfortable. Greenfield's talk highlighted how cities evolved with neighborhoods, landmarks and "legibility." If technologies---think RFID---remove those boundaries it's hard to model a city.

Greenfield's point is that the sensor laden cities of the future will morph and that may not be such a good thing.

As IPv6, the latest version of Internet Protocol, is adopted every "grain of sand can have an Internet address," said Greenfield. "We're entering a time where every brick and every window and traffic signal an addressable object," he added.

Within a city communication will go beyond people-to-people conversation to the actual fabric of the city. And the future isn't really that far away: London's Tower Bridge has a Twitter account.

Is all this tracking worth it? Cities have been an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Technology like social networking means you can't escape your past. Reinvention goes away. What happens when every sensor tracks you and there's no escaping your past? Does the city still hold its appeal?

The fix: Greenfield argues that we need new city residents that can explain these technologies to the masses. Regulation, open data and law will all play a part. The problem: Sensor issues and the side effects from networked cities aren't on anyone's radar.

Perhaps we need to think about the design of network through a bit more and start the conversation.