The smartest place I know: “It’s a crazy, impossible tapestry”

Collage of multiple cities and tube maps

Transportation guru Hiro Aso builds his own smart city, Frankenstein-style

It’s perhaps inevitable that I would approach “smart” from a transportation point of view. More specifically, for me this means the ability to facilitate face-to-face meetings in an age of remarkable digital connectivity. I can be talking to my colleagues in Sydney, Melbourne, Kathmandu, wherever. But how do we not just make sense of but celebrate the moments that we have in our very busy lives to do a face-to-face? I tried to choose one “smartest place” from that perspective — and I failed miserably.

I struggle to move beyond a list of bits of cities, a somewhat Frankenstein answer. To start with, a place needs a sense of arrival, where things are intuitive and effortless. I immediately thought of Hong Kong International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, built on an island on reclaimed land. Because of noise and pollution issues, aviation facilities are not embraced and they’re rarely successfully woven into the city fabric. Hong Kong has found a smart way of dealing with that, and with the acute shortage of land that prevails in many places.

Orientation is important for facilitating meetings and interactions, and the London tube map by Harry Beck is a fabulous orientation device that has become a piece of iconic design. It makes navigation through the city that much more effortless. And obviously, an excellent public transportation system is surely a benchmark of a great smart city. I can’t resist thinking about Tokyo Metro, used by something like close to 10 million passengers a day, criss-crossing and inadvertently interacting with each other through this megalopolis.

When you’re in a city, you want to feel its vibrancy and success. But you also need quiet moments and contemplative spaces, so it’s not all about the chaos and cacophony of business. In Melbourne, the wellbeing and healthy living agenda seems very tangible. It’s about to overtake Sydney as the largest city in Australia and yet it’s dealing with those growing pains in a balanced way. While the CBD is going through this continual renaissance and attracting global talent, there is a laser-sharp focus on creating an arts and cultural destination too.

There are some very compelling stories about brand-new smart cities, but we also need to navigate the interface between the new and the old. I think that London does this in an utterly democratic, exemplary way. It’s not just about the neighbourliness of new structures adjacent to an Edwardian or Victorian building, it’s about existing communities having a meaningful connection with what’s created. Those conversations are profoundly important, and they can be had in London and other UK cities because there is a very strong democratic process that facilitates them.

“For me, smart means facilitating face-to-face meetings in an age of digital connectivity. How do we celebrate these moments in our very busy lives?”

The balance of old and new isn’t just about the built fabric, it’s people too. A smart city needs the right facilities for younger people and those who come into an area anew, and for the older demographic. If you wander around a place like Delhi, it’s really mixed. Perhaps there’s a clue in the way that particular culture venerates the old and places huge expectations on the young. Maybe this isn’t controlled by policy and can’t be legislated for, but it’s something we need to be thinking about nevertheless.

Then I thought about healthy streets and healthy lives and I thought of Bergen in Norway. Norwegian cities are famous for having the highest proportion of new electric car sales, but their story isn’t just about the pollution aspect, it’s creating an environment that isn’t vehicle-oriented. That means promoting walking and non-vehicular modes of transportation. In Bergen, it rains a heck of a lot and yet it’s a very walkable city with an enviable complement of electric vehicles. A smart city needs to embrace that agenda.

What does all that create? It’s a crazy, impossible tapestry. But perhaps that’s why I’m still feeling motivated and that I have something to contribute to through the design agenda, because we don’t really have an exemplar yet. It’s formidable, but also a wonderful challenge.

Hiro Aso is leader, urban transport for UKEMEA at HASSELL

Photos: Adobe Stock Photo, Francisco Anzola/Flickr

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