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Home is where the digital heart is

Nabil Abou-Rahme

What turns a house into a home, or a housing development into a community? One answer must be – in today’s increasingly digital world – fast, reliable internet access.

In developed countries people expect to have electricity at the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a tap, and now superfast broadband with multiple devices connected. Online access is synonymous with modern lifestyles. It is an essential service, not an optional one.

Yet while houses and entire towns are built from the outset to be fully connected to the basic utilities (power, water and drainage), the ‘fourth utility’ – digital connectivity – cannot yet be said to have equal priority in urban planning.

The need for integrated planning

This is mainly due to lack of foresight and integrated planning. What’s needed is a shared vision and common goals when designing and building new communities to harness the potential of modern technology.

Digital connectivity takes different forms. Fixed line broadband, involving ducts in the street and structured cabling in the home, is not the only option. In rural locations, internet access through mobile networks may be more affordable and more feasible than fixed infrastructure.

Either way, greater co-ordination between central government, local authorities, developers, architects and internet service providers can help to ensure digital connectivity is given as much priority as other amenities and facilities in the design and development of urban spaces. This is not just to cater for people wanting to connect to their favourite online services either, there’s a growing demand for communication between smart objects and systems within the home, and indeed between multiple homes.

Connectivity can help build communities

One of the challenges facing urban planners is attracting people to live in next-generation housing developments, and to buy or rent a home which might be of a radical, cutting-edge design – modular, space-saving and eco-friendly, and prefabricated or even 3D printed to make it cheap and quick to build. It might be in a remote location, where there is available land for pop-up cities, and a long way from any other population centres.

The sustainability of new settlements depends on its inhabitants staying put and building a new life. What will encourage them to lay down roots is the creation of a sense of place, which can be difficult in a new town or city without iconic landmarks, or a history, culture and traditions.

But if residents of new urban spaces can access sophisticated online services from the moment they move in, they will be able to learn rapidly about their new environment and receive localised information. This may include information about how they can contribute to sustainability goals for that community or other social initiatives that build engagement. Of course, all this presupposes an ecosystem of service providers with the vision to develop such applications – and that in turn requires a common understanding of the economic value of community.

The wider benefits of smart infrastructure

It makes sense to invest further in smart infrastructure because it will create many opportunities to transform citizens’ relationships with the urban environment.

Intelligent transport networks, for example, will support personalised dynamic journey planning and the development of mobility as a service. Without having to own a car, citizens will simply pay a subscription for end-to-end journeys. It’s quite conceivable that the same service provider could also mediate accounts for electricity, water and a range of other services related to the sharing economy.

Smart infrastructure can provide a platform for the development of district heating and cooling systems, and distributive rather than centralised power generation networks as more and more households generate energy as well as consume it.

The governance of a new, fast-growing city can be made more efficient and accountable through smart infrastructure, which is fundamentally the sharing of multiple datasets across institutional barriers – between service providers or between departments within the municipal authority – to increase the capacity, reliability and resilience of services.

Finally, if we can use our smartphones to pay for goods and services and as a mobile boarding pass when catching a flight, why not use it to vote as well? If the infrastructure is in place and the right software applications are available, it’s another way municipal authorities could utilise digital channels to build engagement with citizens.

This is all possible through greater digital connectivity, a key enabler to the development of vibrant, successful urban communities.

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