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Five ways smart cities can change daily life in the public realm (for the better)

Improved security, reduced energy consumption and better health are just some of the possibilities, proponents say

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When it comes to the smart city of the future, the cost of innovative technologies and concerns over privacy and data collection often dominate the conversation.

Less talked about are the ways these technologies could help public spaces address our core needs and contribute to the collective good of our communities. As municipalities around the world grapple with the question of how to “future-proof” cities, it’s worth asking: How can we ensure that the cities of the future provide spaces that are more secure, affordable and healthier for all?

1. Health

Our cities, for better or worse, have a deep impact on the quality of our health.

But smart technologies can actually make our cities healthier places to live by creating a gentler environment, while enabling residents to lead more active and healthier lifestyles, explains Nels Nelson, a senior planner at global architecture and engineering firm Stantec.

“Where and how you live determines two-thirds of your general health outcomes,” Mr. Nelson says. “So by working to reduce negative frictions on how we live our lives – like traffic congestion, or noise pollution – as well as increasing opportunities for more social interactions, we can do a lot to improve our physical and mental health.”

Technology also increasingly provides options, such as using smart sensors to turn off non-essential lights after a certain hour to promote better sleep patterns or attaching air-quality monitors to streetlights.

Even the buildings in which we work and live can play a huge role in our quality of life if they are set up with the right technology, says Piers MacNaughton, associate director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Buildings are themselves a technology,” Dr. MacNaughton says. “We can use building technologies to improve biophilic design in the building, such as controlling the level of daylight coming in or bringing more nature indoors.”

Technologies such as smart windows, which dynamically increase or decrease tint, have been shown to “reduce glare, lower the incidence of headaches, and enhance views of nature by eliminating the need for blinds, shading elements or window treatments,” he adds.

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3. Education and civic engagement

Smart cities provide a unique opportunity for public spaces to be used as themed classrooms, and many pilot programs envision outdoor spaces to educate citizens on how their daily life can affect the environment.

One such concept is the Energy Pop-up Park (E-Pop), an interactive park prototype created by integrated urban designer and Stantec smart city planner Maciej Golaszewski. The park uses gamification as a strategy to educate citizens about basic energy literacy.

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E-Pop gamifies the park experience for users and guests by helping them learn about energy principles in fun and interactive ways, whether it’s pedaling a bike or aligning windmills and solar panels. Energy captured through these activities can be stored in the park batteries and used for a purpose the player chooses, like charging their phone or sharing energy with other players.

The goal, according to Mr. Golaszewski, is to increase “energy literacy” – educating communities about basic energy concepts so that they think about their own impact as an individual, whether it’s conserving electricity at home, taking public transit more regularly or shopping and eating locally – all of which contribute to a more sustainable future.

4. Affordability and flexibility

Smart city planners spend a lot of time thinking about how we live, and how we can make the way we live more flexible and in doing so, more affordable.

As the associate director of development at Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google parent Alphabet, Annie Koo is a partner in a proposed smart city development on Torontoʼs eastern waterfront.

Ms. Koo says modular spaces and housing are among the concepts that she and her team at Sidewalk Labs have been delving into in an effort to make living spaces “work harder” for less.

Everyone should have access to accessible housing, regardless of budget, Ms. Koo says. With modular units, “you can start small and grow.”

And it’s not just about housing, as these concepts can be applied to office buildings and communal spaces alike, explains Koo. “It’s about thinking through smart cities in an integrated way across buildings and individual units to the psychology of affordability and flexibility, instead of just thinking about them in a technology-specific way.”

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Editing by STEPHANIE CHAN, illustration by ISABEL FOO, creative direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI, development by KYLE YOUNG, design by JEANINE BRITO

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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