Spark

What living in a hyper-connected city means for human beings

Canada Research Chair in the Internet of Things and OCAD University professor Alexis Morris says people need to be at the centre of smart cities with contextually aware public spaces.

In the future, the spaces you occupy may be aware of you—and react accordingly.

Smart cities need to be centred around people, says Alexis Morris, Canada Research Chair in the Internet of Things. (Adam Killick/CBC)
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This story was originally published on April 26, 2019.

Smart cities might help us use resources efficiently, and at an individual level, the networked environment they promise might help us accomplish our goals more effectively.

But we've also seen the potential for smart cities to be dystopian, hackable environments of surveillance.

It's really a question of design: how we create urban spaces where the human—and the connection between humans—is front and centre?

Alexis Morris is the Canada Research Chair in the Internet of Things, an assistant professor in the Digital Futures program and director of the Adaptive Context Environments Lab  at OCAD University.

Alexis Morris (OCAD)

"It's really a rich problem space, especially because nowadays we're starting to see a lot more embedded technology in our everyday environments," he told Spark host Nora Young. "So how do we design for that? How do we make people more aware of what our technologies are doing?"

In other words, we don't just want a sea of data that helps the traffic lights or the power grid operate more efficiently, we want the data-rich environment to help us—as human beings. For Morris, the answer is context: technologies that understand, say, what we're trying to do, how we're feeling, and respond accordingly.

"We think about the connections between devices," he said. "But there's also the connections between humans and those devices. And then at a more important level is the connections between humans to other humans."

Morris believes our networked cities of the future will be powered by three big technological developments: mixed reality (where the physical world around us is braided through with digital information), pattern recognition (which is what AI is so good at), and that idea of context awareness. Which would be a very different environment from our current world of staring into our phones for information.

"We're going to move into a space where that information can be presented to us regardless of where we are or what we're doing, he explained. "I could have a virtual object that just jumps out of a physical object, like a character or an avatar," he said.

So, imagine a smart city where you can customize the amount of information you get as you move about your environment. And where we can think of the smart city as having something like digital agents that can help us and understand the context of what we need.

Kind of like Siri or Google Assistant now, but dispersed throughout the city.

"So I might be able to even gain more agency over how much information is presented to me, he said. "All of a sudden my space is now telling me that I need to remember to go and pick up something from the grocery store."

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