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A Magazine for Sheffield

Smart City: Come Out from Behind Your Screen

The ghost of Roald Dahl has come to dinner. Death hasn’t dulled his appetite for wine. “'Never stop looking at the world with glittering eyes.' I said that,” he declares. “And I was right, as usual. But what’s with these smart phones? Everyone just scowls at their little screens now. It kills me, or it would do...” My wife agrees enthusiastically. “I say, when you’re given a choice, always go for the most fun option. What’s the most fun thing to do in Sheffield?” So begins a long discussion. Hang-gliding off Mam Tor? Exploring the Megatron, which sounds much more exciting than ‘gigantic drain’? Playing frisbee in Ruskin Park? Placing bets on whether anyone finishing their yoga class on Commonside will dive desperately into the bacon sandwich shop next door? “Come on,” says a voice in my head, “It’s early. Time to seize the day.” An hour later, I’ve made coffee and packed a bag. I have a notebook and I’m off in search of ideas. I catch a bus to Wharncliffe Side with no other plan than to walk home. I zig-zag vertically - up to Brightholmlee, down to Bradfield, across the Loxley, up into Stannington, down to Rails, across the Rivelin, then up home through the Bole Hills. I pause a few times to write down my thoughts. I quit Facebook recently, because I had stopped having ideas. I used to think it was a sociable place, but I came to realise it was just a place to hide. Hide yourself amongst versions of yourself and wait to see if the real you will be discovered. Hiding is seeing the world through the eyes of the hunted. I was in flight mode. I could no longer think like an adventurer, an inquisitor. I could only scroll. I deleted my account and waited out the apocalypse. The echo chamber silently imploded and scattered its debris to the four winds. A handful of people ceased to exist. The cat breathed a sigh of relief. No-one noticed my leaving. Just before I cut the cord, I remembered an old school friend. After a 30-year absence, we meet up, no longer passively observing each other’s lives on social media, but crashing headlong into the same place and time. We pick up where we left off as children, with laughter and ideas, paying no heed to our insistent grey hairs or our acquired cynicism. It’s a moving experience, and it’s fun. “What do you make of smart cities?” he asks. “Erm…” I reply confidently, “Remember how I used to write about our class trips for the school magazine, and how the pieces were never quite true, because a bit of surrealism made them a lot funnier?” “Mm-hmm.” He doesn’t remember. “Well,” I bluster on, “I thought I was being smart. If it makes people laugh, they’ll keep reading. Is a smart city just about big data, giving us ever more reasons to stare at screens? If so, it’s going to make us dumber. Reducing our driving by relying on loads of other people (or robots) to drive around on our behalf isn’t smart. It’s wildly inefficient. “But what if a smart city could make us smarter, make us laugh, put the glitter back in our eyes? How would it do that? What if augmented reality could make the city more interesting, rather than just make us more likely to spend money? Could it reconnect us with nature? Could it reach out to lonely people, or play pranks on people who were staring at their phones too much? Maybe if I could map where I was when I had a good idea, and other people did the same, then we could share ideas depending on the spaces they happened in? That would mean that spaces were generating ideas. That could be a really smart city.” It already sounds much more fun than Facebook. )

Next article in issue 123

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