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Can smart technology benefit everyone?

Concern is growing that future smart technology will overwhelm the individual character of our cities and existing neighbourhoods and may fail to meet the needs of our local communities. This is according to former Director of Environment at Cambridge City Council, Simon Payne, who has worked in local government for over 40 years, now runs his own business Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge Ltd.

He warns that citizens might increasingly feel threatened by their loss of local identity and disillusioned over the impact of the new technologies. Simon is keen to stress that cities and local administrations must have a thought-out vision and set of clear objectives, to harness the power of smart technology in a way that benefits their citizens. The technology itself, he explains, is only a tool and not an end in tis own right.

Simon describes the technologies to come in the next thirty years:

'Our homes, hospitals, offices, factories and high streets will be transformed, for example driverless vehicles (including buses and lorries), printers that print in 3D, autonomous machines communicating with each other and a vast number of sensors (for public safety, environmental protection, energy efficiency or domestic convenience), robotic care for the sick or elderly, improved communications and virtual reality. Much of this technology has already been invented and needs to be fully developed commercially. Some of the technology can only be imagined.'

He says would now like a debate with thought and consideration about the combined impact of these changes on our society and the behaviour and lifestyles of our citizens.

Simon warns that we have 'a development industry that lives for today' and suggests there is a big gulf between the technologists designing the smart technology and the architects, planners and engineers who are creating the physical fabric of our cities. 'The professions operate within different time horizons and with differing objectives and there is an urgent need for a proper dialogue across these disciplines that involves citizens. Collectively, we are not 'imagining the future' together and consequently may miss the opportunity to shape technology around the needs of the whole of society,' he insists.

Smart technology, he explains, is the same in Silicon Valley, Cambridge UK or Beijing - but the character of these local places is particular and special and the people who live in them have individual needs.

This is too important an issue he believes to leave to globalised business alone and requires a long-term joined-up approach led by city administrators in conversation with citizens: 'Smart technology is simply a tool. We must strive to create distinctive and sustainable cities with a high quality of life for all and most importantly shape the technology around this.'

The BBC's Mark Mardell has recently been discussing the impact of smart technology on our cities and economy. His article on BBC News on-line notes that 3D printers can eliminate jobs in both manufacturing and transportation, while robotic cleaners working in London hotels can be remotely operated from the other side of the world. The consequence would be a newly created 'poor' and the solution a 'citizen's wage' - a society where everyone receives a basic wage, whether they are working or not.

Smart technology, Simon Payne, concludes, like any tool can be used for good or ill: 'The challenge of our times is first to be clear on what we want from the technology and then to work together to achieve it. We should strive for a good quality of life for all the communities within our cities as part of a future that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. We need to understand the real combined potential of the new smart technologies and to work with our citizens to unlock that potential in a way that reflects the needs and character of each city and of each community'.

Find out more about Simon Payne and his consultancy from his web site: Simon will be speaking at our next Future Cities Forum on 6th March 2017 at The Institute of Engineering and Technology in London. Please email for details.

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