What smart cities of the future can learn from London in 1854

One of the surprising subtexts of FutureFest – the annual gaze into the future at London’s Tobacco Dock – is how often tomorrow’s solutions could benefit from careful study of the past. In fact, it’s possible for one Londoner to make a strong case for being the first person to implement smart-city thinking all the way back in 1854.

That’s right – we’re talking 162 years ago. This is what Nesta’s Eddie Copeland contends, pointing to physician John Snow’s response to the Broad Street cholera outbreak. The wisdom of the time was that the epidemic of deaths were caused by miasma, rather than bacteria in the water supply. “You’d look at a glass of water, and it would be completely clear; they didn’t have the technology at the time to see the bacteria. He seemed insane to people: on the one hand you had something you could really sense [the thick smog]; on the other you had clear water, where you couldn’t even taste anything,” explains Copeland.

“He found that the workers were given beer from the factory to drink, so weren’t touching the contaminated water”

Snow began to map the addresses of everyone who had died, and a clear pattern emerged around Soho. Gradually, holes in the conventional thinking became obvious to him. Many people who sucked down the thick smog of London every day were surviving, but those working at a brewery right in the middle of the danger zone seemed wholly unaffected. It turned out that the workers were given beer from the factory to drink, so weren’t touching the contaminated water.

As a result of his work, Snow was able to trace the deaths back to one pump in Broad Street, and eventually persuaded the council to cut off the supply; he saved hundreds of lives in the process. These analytical methods of plotting city data to localised problems would mainly lie dormant until 2005, when they were used in New York to systematically map data to tackle specific urban problems in housing and public safety.


The problem with many technology-led smart cities, as Tom Saunders pointed out some months ago, is that often data is collected for the sake of it, without any clear idea of how it will be used to improve lives. ““Take the Santander city-wide sensing project for example; it placed over 10,000 sensors across the city, and the outcome of the project was that it allowed researchers to collect lots of data – not improve in any way the way that the city functions,” he explained.

This example highlights the two common pitfalls of the smart city. The first is that it applies technology as a solution to a problem without first assessing how it could help. “The smart-city movement at the moment has led to cities around the world rushing to procure new technology to gather even more data that they have no idea how to use,” says Copeland. “It’s like they’re trying to ride a motorbike before they’ve ridden a bike.”

But the second issue is the expense of setting up sensors all over a city – but with so many connected devices, that needn’t be that complex. If you were wanting to track, say, traffic in London, you could use Oyster card records, number plates caught on camera, or even third-party analytics via phone-carrier data. The right visionary – a modern day John Snow – could have a field day with the data we collect.

Not that Snow was credited for this in his lifetime, despite the council humouring him by taking action against the Broad Street pump. “I think it was about 1866 before official government bodies acknowledged that he was right; his evidence became overwhelming in retrospect,” says Copeland. “I think at the time, the government and health authorities almost went out of their way to find every point of data that could somehow be construed to confirm their theory. Going back to medieval times, it was always assumed that disease and pestilence was spread through the air, so he was trying to reverse centuries of conventional thinking. It shows how difficult it can be to convince governments, even with all the data points.”

Indeed, the government’s solution at the time was “literally the worst possible thing you could do,” says Copeland. In order to improve the visible air quality, the first act of Britain’s first centralised health organisation was to put new sewers in place that would flush all the waste out to the Thames. “Their first act was to poison the population, which is a not-minor irony.”

So what can urban planners learn from London’s 1854 cholera outbreak? Use the freely available data, zone in on one specific problem, and hope for a genius to make sense of it all. “If you have someone with the intelligence of John Snow who asks the right questions, then that kind of person could get good use out of the Internet of Things,” Copeland speculates, “but he’d probably start by just asking people on the ground what it is that they do.”

Sometimes, technology can just cloud the issue.

Images: Public domain and JustinC used under Creative Commons

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