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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”


The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs. 

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there. 

This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.

We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. 

The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.

Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity. 

Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.

Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.

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VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

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VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence


As we inched nearer, I worried about infringing upon the other participants’ personal space. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them—and wasn’t ditching the notion of personal space the whole point? So I tried to settle into the intimacy.

“What happens in VR is that sense of completely forgetting about the existence of the external world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and a cofounder of a company that uses VR to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there is definitely similarity there to this sense of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than what’s actually out there.” 

But, she adds, “there’s definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, she appreciates that Isness-D charts a new path to transcendence instead of just mimicking one that existed already.

More research is needed on the enduring effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality, in general, can induce benefits similar to psychedelics. The dominant theory on how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a debate far from settled) is that their effect is driven by both the subjective experience of a trip and the drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Since VR only mirrors the subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.

We moved closer still, until we met in the center of the circle—four clumps of smoke billowing together.

Jacob Aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured participants’ mental wellness. He thinks VR likely can downregulate the default mode network—a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t directed at a specific task, and which psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes ego death). People shown awe-inspiring videos have diminished activity in this network. VR is better at inducing awe than regular video, so Isness-D might similarly dial it down.

Already, a startup called aNUma that spun out of Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions weekly. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to companies for virtual wellness retreats, and provides a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families, and their caregivers cope with terminal illness. A coauthor of the paper describing Isness-D is even piloting it in couples and family therapy.

“What we’ve found is that representing people as pure luminosity really releases them from a lot of judgments and projections,” Glowacki says. That includes negative thoughts about their body and prejudices. He has personally facilitated aNUma sessions for cancer patients and their loved ones. One, a woman with pancreatic cancer, died days later. The last time she and her friends gathered was as mingling balls of light.

For one phase of my Isness-D experience, moving created a brief electric trail that marked where I’d just been. After a few moments of this, the narration prodded: “What does it feel like to see the past?” I started to think of people from my past who I missed or had hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to write their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scribbled them, I watched them vanish.

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Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry

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Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry


It remains unclear whether the failure of Unigroup directly triggered the anticorruption earthquake within Big Fund. However, the strategy that the latter has taken—throwing massive investments against the wall and seeing what sticks—can fail miserably. According to longtime observers, that strategy is also the perfect breeding ground for corruption.

“This is the least surprising corruption investigation I’ve heard of for a while,” says Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the US think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not because I know Ding Wenwu is personally corrupt, but when you have that amount of money sloshing around in an industry, it’d be way more surprising if there isn’t a major corruption scandal.”

A significant part of the problem was a lack of precision, says Sheehan. China knew it needed to invest in semiconductors but didn’t know what exact sub-industry or company to prioritize. The country has been forced to learn by trial and error, feeling its way through issues like the bankruptcy of Unigroup and the expanding technology blockade by the US. The next step should be more targeted investments into specific companies, Sheehan says.

That might mean a new boss for the Big Fund—someone who’s better versed in getting financial returns, says Paul Triolo, a senior VP at the business strategy firm Albright Stonebridge, which advises companies operating in China. Many of the Big Fund’s managers came from government backgrounds and may simply have lacked the relevant experience. Ding, who’s under investigation now, used to be a department director at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

“You need competent people to run this [Big Fund] that understand the industry, finance, and are not going to fund projects that don’t have a sound commercial basis,” Triolo says.

Ultimately, these investigations may end up being positive for China’s semiconductor industry because they highlight the limitation of politically driven funding and may push the Big Fund to be managed on a more market-based basis. Beijing’s appetite for experiments is waning as its worries about self-sufficiency intensify. “They can’t afford to squander $5 billion on fabs that aren’t going to be viable,” says Triolo.

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The Download: experimental embryos and the US monkeypox emergency

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The Download: experimental embryos and the US monkeypox emergency


In a search for novel forms of longevity medicine, a biotech company based in Israel says it intends to create embryo-stage versions of people in order to harvest tissues for use in transplant treatments.

The company, Renewal Bio, is pursuing recent advances in stem-cell technology and artificial wombs, demonstrated by Jacob Hanna, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Earlier this week, Hanna showed that starting with mouse stem cells, his lab could form highly realistic-looking mouse embryos and keep them growing in a mechanical womb for several days until they developed beating hearts, flowing blood, and cranial folds. 

It’s the first time such an advanced embryo has been mimicked without sperm, eggs, or even a uterus. Now Hanna has set his sights on extending the technology to humans—he’s already experimenting with human cells and hopes to eventually produce artificial models of human embryos. “We view the embryo as the best 3D bio printer,” he says. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Automated techniques could make it easier to develop AI

Machine-learning researchers have to make many decisions when designing new models, meaning that complex models end up being designed by human intuition, rather than systematically. A growing field called automated machine learning, or autoML, aims to eliminate that guesswork, allowing algorithms to take over the decision making, which could both simplify the process and make machine learning more accessible.

Big Tech is paying attention. Companies like Amazon and Google already offer low-code machine-learning tools that take advantage of autoML techniques, and computer scientists are excited by the notion of being able to simply specify a problem, before tasking the computer with figuring it out. But researchers have a lot of work to do before autoML can be deployed more widely. Read the full story.

Tammy Xu

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US has declared monkeypox a public health emergency
It has surpassed 7,100 cases, more than any other country. (WSJ $)
+ Many queer men have been unable to get vaccinated. (Vox)
+ Some people will be at risk of contracting both monkeypox and covid. (The Atlantic $)
+ There’s still no evidence to suggest that monkeypox has become more virulent. (Slate)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Alex Jones must pay $4 million to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim
The conspiracy theorist is finally facing consequences for calling the massacre a hoax. (BBC)
+ The jury could choose to award further damages, too. (Buzzfeed News

3 Elon Musk has accused Twitter of fraud 
He also claims he was “hoodwinked” into signing the purchase agreement. (Bloomberg $)
+ A tool used to assess Twitter bots reportedly flagged Musk’s own account as one. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s lawyers aren’t holding back. (The Verge)
+ Meanwhile, Musk predicts the US will weather a “mild recession” for 18 months. (Insider)

4 The UK’s cost of living crisis has birthed a wave of scams
Which feels particularly cruel, if sadly inevitable. (FT $)

5 Your brain appears to unlock new realities when you die 🧠
The new dimensions of reality some dying people experience are not the same as hallucinating. (Neo.Life)

6 We’re buying fewer video games than we used to
With less disposable income, shoppers are cutting down on non-essentials. (WP $)

7 The animals we know least about are most at risk of extinction
Many are already believed to have died out before we could discover them. (Motherboard)
+ Machine learning could help identify the species most at risk. (The Verge)
+ Understanding how species mate is crucial to ensuring their future safety. (Knowable Magazine)

8 The internet is obsessed with tracking the celebrities’ flights
Aviation enthusiasts are revealing the data that the rich and famous would rather keep secret. (The Guardian)

9 Hollywood is getting better at portraying young, online lives  
Being Extremely Online is no longer the preserve of the loner. (The Atlantic $)
+ How the next generation is reshaping political discourse. (MIT Technology Review)

10 TikTok can’t get enough of young farmers 🐄🐏
Their rural lives are striking a chord. (FT $)
+ Elsewhere on TikTok, users are paying money to wake people up. (Wired $)

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