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From the Domesday book to ‘smart cities’—how did we get here, and where are we going?

A “smart city” today is a city where clever technological solutions are employed to collect data to be used in policy decisions and for managing service delivery. Despite the terminology, a smart “city” can be virtually any community, from a college campus to the cabins of a ship.

How did we get here?

The communities in question do this by collecting data about how spaces are used: who lives there or visits, who owns what, who uses the roads, where they’re going, how they’re getting there, and what services they need.
This information then helps us make appropriate policies and regulations, which in turn support and shapes the way people use these cities. For many, the biggest benefit is that all this activity helps alleviate the pressures of scarcity by reducing waste.
What is a ‘smart city’?
When we use the term “smart city” now, you might think of several things: maybe QR codes, aerial photography, sensors, the huge amounts of data held with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or the Internet of Things. You would be right. All of these things are certainly used by modern smart cities.

But the use of civic data to inform policy is quite a bit older than the internet. In fact, it also pre-dates credit cards, telephones, gunpowder, the printing press and the water mill. It’s true that the development of new technologies has been an enabler of progress, but gathering data about the population, where they move, who owns what, and so forth, is a practice with a very, very long history.

National censuses are one well-established example

National censuses are one well-established example. In Australia where we’re headquartered, the first national census conducted by the ABS was made in 1911—and that’s only the tip of a big iceberg. The first ever census, counting people, livestock, butter, honey, milk and vegetables, was taken some 6000 years ago in Babylon. Governments in Ancient Egypt, Israel and China also conducted censuses well before the common era.

In the common era, the most comprehensive pre-industrial collection of civic data in the west was the 1085-1086 Domesday book—a document ordered by William the Conqueror, who wanted to know what were the remaining financial resources of the ravaged country he now ruled.

In medieval times, this kind of data collection took many months, and was a much more significant and uncommon undertaking than it is today. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it: “moreover (it is shameful to tell, though he thought it no shame to do it), not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ.”

This was particularly important at the time, because the book (and its details of new Norman landowners) became the source of truth upon which ensuing legal judgements could rely—a kind of medieval answer to what we now think of as single source of truth architecture. If it was recorded in the Great Survey, it was true.

This is the same role that many of our modern registers now occupy. For example, registers or property collected via our local Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning fill a similar role.

Decades of history

Although it was not the only enumeration of people, land and ownership, this was the most significant such undertaking for some time in western history, and forms the most complete record of pre-industrial Europe to survive today.

Rapid technological development

Here in Victoria, Australia, from where I now write, the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages was established on 18 January 1853 with the proclamation of the Registration (Births, Deaths and Marriages) Act. A year later, our first colonial census was taken in 1854, and that process later became bundled with the other states’ and territories’ censuses into our national census in 1911.

With the rapid technological development of the 20th century, new methodologies were within reach. Advancements in data storage and computer-assisted processes meant that our capacity to attain and use civic data only became broader and more sophisticated. By the 1960s and 70s, Los Angeles’s Community Analysis Bureau had begun using computer assisted statistical analysis to try to tackle problems of poverty and deteriorating housing conditions. This was a thoroughly “smart cities” approach, despite occurring decades before that term came into popular use.

Records of births, deaths, ownership of land and livestock, tenancies, businesses and marriages (and annulments and divorces), all contribute to the governance of a city, a state or a country. Over time these have been used in a variety of ways, from supporting the land rights of invaders over confiscated lands, to tracking the capacity of a labour force, to providing insight into the support needs of various communities.

Now, we use collected data to make our communities safer, less wasteful, and cleaner. From sensors on ferries that collect information about ridership, weather, speed, maintenance needs and fuel use, to mapping services reducing emissions by directing traffic, to automated remote monitoring and temperature capture of highly contagious patients, modern technology has achieved a ubiquity and convenience our distant ancestors could never have imagined.

Today, Orikan is one small part of that trend—our parking sensors are used to capture, track and record information about how people use the spaces in their communities.

And in the future?

Well, smart solutions are always developing. The evolution of big data has been curtailed in part by changes to data privacy regulations across the globe, so it’s highly likely that future developments will include small data, highly flexible and responsive edge processing, AI and automation that will use the information we produce when we use spaces to accommodate, predict and manage resources accordingly.