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What is actually smart about cities right now?

Megan Goodwin, Joint Managing Director at the Interactive Rights Management digital innovation agency, looks at four key obstacles that need to be overcome before we can achieve truly smart cities.

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Given that all statistics point to increasing urbanisation, what real in-roads have been made to improve the quality of life for residents?

There are some great examples of interesting technology but has there been any meaningful change in how it actually FEELS to live in a city.

What is actually smart about cities right now?

If cities are so smart, then why does it take me 18 steps on a website to report a blocked drain?

There are some great examples of interesting technology (smart street lamps in Barcelona and smart bins in Dubai, for example), but has there been any meaningful change in how it actually FEELS to live in a city.


Given that all statistics point to increasing urbanisation, what real in-roads have been made to improve the quality of life for residents?

Pockets of progress

There are only a few projects I can think of:

The city of Cardiff, Wales, has implemented a network of wireless sensors, developed by Smart Parking, to monitor the number of free parking bays so that drivers can locate vacant parking spaces in real time and be guided to them by GPS navigation. The data analytics are all fed back through the platform, providing valuable intelligence on parking activities. The initiative itself has made a real difference to citizens – less pollution and congestion and, as a result, less frustration. The question for me would be, have they taken this further with all the data they have generated? Have they freed up more space at peak times? Built more spaces if they are needed?

In Amsterdam, Netherlands, a similar initiative by the city to improve parking allows householders to rent out parking space they aren’t using. This is an intelligent use of resources in the sharing economy and, as in Cardiff, reduces parking problems and traffic jams. However, again, what is done with this data? Are they expanding to other cities? What is the next step?

Next there are artificially intelligent traffic systems that react to traffic flows to optimise congestion. One of the earliest was launched in Barcelona, Spain, where the transmission of real-time data to regulate traffic flow has been used to re-route buses and turn lights green for emergency services. This is one of the greatest deployment of smart city solutions as every second matters for emergency services.


In Hangzhou, one of the most connected cities in China, there was a trial in the Xiaoshan district in September 2017 which delivered positive results. The city has teamed up with Alibaba to use its AI and big data analytics, combined with video and image recognition technologies, to increase traffic speed by 11 per cent.

Now what?

But why are cities so slow to roll these out? When things work, why does it take so long to learn from them and advance them to the next level?

 

Rate of change

 

Cities are exploring ways to alleviate parking problems but if we are all going to be using driverless taxis in the next 10 years, perhaps this is missing the point? Nevertheless, the data and the learning will be invaluable to inform future initiatives.


The data fiasco

One of the stumbling blocks behind smart cities is public institutions’ fear of collecting and using data. It is a fiasco! Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. have infinitely more data and know much more about everything we do, buy and think than local governments, who could be using this insight to more accurately predict health, education and transport needs. Instead, we have reached a point where governments treat data like a hot potato, whilst Apple literally knows my every move, and Facebook (well, let’s not go there right now….).


There is so much to be gained by having a comprehensive data strategy. Any data strategy must include a clear and coherent explanation to consumers about what their data (and it is their data) will be used for, and given the chance to buy in to the very simple proposition: sharing this data will help us live a more sustainable, healthier – and therefore happier – existence.


Barcelona, launched something similar back in 2015 with the Open Data project, through which the public data collected is made available to all. Use of this information is actively encouraged. On the website you can find data on all aspects of life in the city. Want to know the nationality of the city’s car owners? Monthly rent by neighbourhood? Or perhaps a map of land plots? It’s all there. And, to encourage citizen participation, you can join the online community and receive regular news and updates. There is even a competition for students to create their solutions to problems using the data.

 

The former Chief Information Officer of Barcelona, Manel Sanromá, who spearheaded this initiative, spoke about the importance of “an integral conception of the city where it and its inhabitants are the driving force, not the passive receptors, of a technology avalanche.”

Money

It is always a big investment for a public entity but most of these schemes would pay for themselves over the course of 3-15 years with the cost savings they bring about. It is right that budgets should be small initially but once successful, this should trigger the release of a more reasonable budget. Governments have to get more entrepreneurial about working with the tech community. Which brings me to the next point…

Mindset

There are not enough strategically digital people working for the government. Either you have technically capable people or public servants who worked their way through the ranks, but there needs to be some serious digital up-skilling within government itself. This will enable more joined-up thinking across multiple aspects of a city: transport, health, education, energy etc…

Governments should start thinking about how they could incubate strategic cross-skillset teams to try and forge new creative initiatives to solve problems. There is nothing disruptive about candidates from the big and clunky tech firms like IBM and SAS. My experience of these initiatives is that they are always too cautious, have limited remit and don’t offer enough incentives for the experienced individuals that they should be courting.

Lessons from Paris

This brings me to Paris Region’s initiatives for smart cities. I have been really impressed by their approach. They have created a fund, infrastructure and mindset to stimulate innovation in the smart city space. It started off with the launch of VIVAtechnology conference in 2016 to stimulate disruptive, innovative initiatives in the smart city space.More recently, Paris Region’s Major, Valérie Pécresse, created the Smart Region Initiative programme.

Paris Region is pushing forward with many elements from driverless cats to the project we are involved with at Interactive Rights Management. This work is aimed at improving the tourist experience by creating intuitive mobile apps that help them get around easier and plan their time better, as well as providing entertainment and education.

Unlike the usual patchwork quilt of different initiatives, Paris Region and Barcelona have created a central team with a common agenda, a common goal and a comprehensive data strategy so they can truly harness that information to make a responsive city.

Community engagement

 

In my view a fundamental aspect of this team has to be community engagers. Establish clear two-way communication with citizens and allow initiatives to flow from either direction. It is only by facilitating this kind of 360-degree thinking that cities will become smarter and better places to live.

It’s true that lower pollution and less congestion etc. make a difference but cities should also propagate more connected, challenging thinking; melting pots of brain power – if you can start to leverage that, then things will start to get really exciting.

 

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