The role of technology in Smart Cities

A pneumatic pipe network connected places in Paris two centuries ago, also used to synchronise clocks. Credits: France Culture, La poste ou l'histoire des communications

Don’t think that technology is something recent. Technology and its application go back in time and was a fundamental component of sophisticated infrastructures.

 Think about orchestrating a complex administrative machine. You needed a way for synchronizing activities and that required a way for measuring the time. Water clocks go back 4,000 years (in China the first historical finding) and in Beijing in the XIII century life ticked by the time provided by water clocks.


 Not many know that two centuries ago the time in Paris was regulated through a sophisticated infrastructure. In 1866 Paris commenced the construction of an experimental pneumatic line between the telegraph offices at Grand Hotel and place de la Bourse. This was extended in 1867 into a one-way hexagon from place de la Bourse through the telegraph offices rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, rue de Rivoli, rue des Saints-Peres, the Central Telegraph Office (rue de Grenelle), rue Boissy d'Anglas, and back to Grand Hotel. During the following decade single line polygonal systems were linked to this hexagonal system and a double tube (two-way) was laid between Central and Bourse, but the network remained always within the limits of the pre-1791 centre of Paris, roughly corresponding to the inner arrondissements. This pneumatic network was used to synchronize the municipal clocks all around the town.


 Infrastructures are serving different needs and most of the time, particularly if they work well, we don’t even perceive their existence. A few numbers to make the point, drawn from Paris. 


 The road infrastructure (3,000 km in Paris) grows over time connecting new housing, factories and commercial premises. They grow almost seamlessly with time. We start to think about this infrastructure as the demand of transportation are no longer satisfied, that is we can running into traffic jams, something that is everyday experience in Mumbai as in many other cities around the world.


 Beneath the road infrastructure there is the sewer infrastructure (2,417 km in Paris)  that is as big as that, although mostly invisible. And it is actually bigger as a whole as we consider its collection points, in the homes and in the streets, like the rubbish bins (60,000 of them in Paris). These interact with soft infrastructure, that is the culture of people living in that city and this interaction makes the difference between a clean and a dirty city. Improving just the physical infrastructure does not transform a dirty city into a clean one.


 A city has thousands of business, 60,000 at the last count in Paris. These are not single tiles, they are weaved into a soft infrastructure of logistics, economics, safety that makes a whole of difference for the biz, for the sellers and the buyers.


 Even spots that would seem unrelated, like places where one can rent a municipal bike, Velib in Paris, are actually part of a sophisticated infrastructure, requiring maintenance, redistribution during the day, monitoring and money collection.


 A most fundamental infrastructure is the one to make energy accessible, to users and to other infrastructures. It has grown enormously in the last 300 years, more than in the previous 10,000 years as effect of the industrial revolution, of mechanical transportation and now of Information and Communications Technology. In Paris pro-capita energy demand per year grew from 19 GJ in 1730 to 276 GJ in 2010 and keeps growing.


 Advances in technology has led to leap in infrastructures effectiveness.


 The first leap occurred with the Industrial revolution in the XVIII century, the second is just ongoing. This has multiplied the number of cities and increased their size. Whereas the largest city in the ancient time was Rome that peaked at over 1 million inhabitant, it was after the industrial revolution that infrastructures became capable of sustaining larger cities. Now there are 29 cities with over 10 million inhabitants (the first one to get over 10 million was New York in 1950). Providing power, water, sewage, food, transport for these kinds of cities is a nightmare and the related infrastructures are usually strained to limit.


Author - Roberto Saracco

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