Cities, Built Environment

Why Big Data and smart cities can't save us from bad design

Big Data is a big buzzword in both the sustainability and tech spaces, especially when it comes to VERGE. Autodesk's Emma Stewart isn't convinced that Big Data will save us from poor design and planning, especially when it comes to cities.

Stewart, Autodesk's head of sustainability solutions, sat down with GreenBiz's Joel Makower at VERGE 2014 in San Francisco to explain why she considers herself a bit of a "contrarian by nature."

As many others at VERGE noted, Stewart said cities will be at the forefront of environmental design and sustainability, as more people make the move from rural to urban.

"I think that what's apparent for city leaders today is that their cities were designed for smaller populations and a more stable environment," she said.

Stewart followed up by saying that the drive for “smart cities” may be conflating the means with the end goal of sustainability and resilience. She gave an example of the humans in the Pixar film "WALL-E," who are whisked from one place to another whilst viewing ads.

There are some things wrong with being 'smart,'” Stewart said.

If you really want to stabilize the climate, we have an increasingly shrinking window of time to do so,” she continued. “Those of us in the tech sector have a shiny new hammer called Big Data. I worry that cities are our nail.”

Stewart used an example showing that while General Electric may benefit from having a multitude of sensors in jet engines to predict failures and maintenance tasks, digging up New York City streets to place sensors to measure ice and snow might not be a smart idea. While the costs of sensors have gone down, the cost of crunching those numbers haven't.

I think we've become sensor-happy,” she said. "[Big Data] definitely isn't free."

One of her colleagues noted that selling Big Data solutions to cities is like "selling yachts to people on welfare." "These are significant IT overhauls we're talking about," she said.

Instead, Stewart said that a focus on design tools, city planning and engineering can create the greatest value for cities who will need to increase sustainability and resiliency in the 21st century.