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Smart city drivers: Heading down an innovation cul-de-sac?

A new report by SmartCitiesWorld reveals that specific challenges and priorities are taking precedence over an integrated smart city strategy. Why and where’s it leading?

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The broad range of improvements and potential benefits that smart cities can bring for citizens brings its own set of challenges in terms of how those running cities prioritise their investments.

 

It is impossible to address all urban ills in one hit. Because challenges range from traffic congestion and air quality to connectivity and public safety, a fragmented technology market has grown up around smart cities.

 

This means that decisions taken today about which vertical area to prioritise and which technology to purchase could have implications further down the line. Vendor lock-in and a lack of standards is both a fear and reality for those creating smart cities.

 

Vendor lock-in and a lack of standards is both a fear and reality for those creating smart cities.

 

A new report by SmartCitiesWorld, in association with Interact by Signify, explores the drivers and priorities of smart cities. Smart cities: Beyond the hype surveyed city officials and executives from telecommunications companies, system integrators and other suppliers to find out which smart city approaches are proving most successful, which vertical applications are being prioritised and what the challenges are to a truly integrated smart city.

 

Findings reveal that addressing individual challenges and priorities are taking precedence over taking a more holistic approach. Less than a third (31 per cent) of cities say they have an integrated, overarching smart city strategy.

 

Move it

 

Improving mobility and tackling the worldwide problem of congestion ranked as the biggest driver for smart cities, with 56 per cent of city representatives and 49 per cent overall citing it in their top three drivers. This aligned with the finding that transportation/mobility (including autonomous vehicles) is also ranked as the highest priority vertical to digitalise or connect by more than half of respondents overall (56 per cent).

 

The focus on transportation is consistent with research findings around the world, which highlight the magnitude of the problem. According to the Inrix 2017 Traffic Scorecard, the largest and most detailed study of congestion, drivers across 1,360 cities spent around nine per cent of their travel time “staring at the bumper in front of them”, with the average speed in congestion just 8.9mph.

 

It isn’t just the economic or personal cost of congestion troubling cities, though – congestion also contributes to poor air quality due to pollutants in vehicle emissions.

 

This issue is moving up the agenda globally and for many cities. London is one of those leading in this area and has launched what it claims is the world’s most advanced and comprehensive network of air quality monitors. Just this week, London introduced the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone.

 

As a vertical sector, mobility is also driven by a huge amount of ongoing innovation, including better use of data, on-demand options such as ride-share and bike-share, mobile ticketing, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) and electric vehicles.

 

Connectivity

 

In terms of city priorities, city-wide connectivity and public broadband came at the top, given that connectivity underpins everything in a smart city. There are digital divides to be overcome but it is encouraging that more than three-fifths (62 per cent) are prioritising connectivity.

 

There are digital divides to be overcome but it is encouraging that more than three-fifths (62 per cent) are prioritising connectivity.

 

The second-biggest driver for smart cities overall was the demand from citizens for more and better digital services, although it ranked lower among city leaders (49 per cent and 38 per cent respectively).

 

A third of city representatives said they are prioritising digitalisation of internal systems and processes.

 

Improving public services through digitalisation is fundamental to becoming a smart city and it’s clear that many cities need to show more commitment and investment in this area.

 

The United Nations compiles a survey every two years to look at how governments can use digital services and ICT technologies to build sustainable and resilient societies. In 2018, this research included initiatives in specific cities for the first time. Moscow topped the list, followed by Cape Town and Tallinn. Muscovites have access to over 222 public digital services provided by city authorities. In 2017, citizens in Moscow used these services over 259 million times, a 31 per cent increase on 2016.

 

Dubai is measuring its e-government initiatives by gauging their effect on citizen happiness.

 

Meanwhile, Dubai is measuring its e-government initiatives by gauging their effect on citizen happiness. Smart Dubai has managed to cut its use of paper by nearly three-fifths (57 per cent) in the first phase of a paperless strategy. A ’Happiness Index’ measuring customer experience at call centres and online suggests that 90 per cent of citizens are happy with services.

 

Competition heats up

 

Among city representatives, the joint second-biggest driver for smart city initiatives was the need for cities to compete when it comes to funding, talent and investment (43 per cent).

 

With so many city rankings in existence today, whether it be the smartest, best for tech, best for wellbeing or most liveable, there is growing competition among cities around the world. These rankings can be accompanied by a degree of cynicism in some quarters but they nevertheless make mainstream news headlines and help to bolster a city’s global reputation.

 

Hence, attracting funding, investment and talent might not seem like the most obvious smart city driver but all these factors contribute to a city’s overall financial and economic health, and ultimately its ability to grow and invest in smart initiatives.

 

The joint second-biggest driver for more than two-fifths of city representatives is to improve citizen safety. However, the research suggests that some cities aren’t mirroring this with actions, given public safety is only prioritised as a vertical by just over a third (36 per cent) of respondents overall and just a quarter of the city representatives.

 

While video surveillance systems and emerging technologies in areas such as facial recognition and predictive policing raise privacy concerns, they are increasing efficiencies. The Australian city of Ipswich has reduced the time it takes police to review information by using a deep learning platform that transforms video into searchable and actionable intelligence in minutes compared to hours.

 

Elsewhere, numerous cities have put infrastructure in place that enables streetlights to automatically brighten at the scene of an accident and which can also send an alert to first responders.

 

Energy was cited as the third-biggest priority by just over half of respondents overall, followed by lighting (43 per cent) but both ranked lower by city representatives at below a third (31 per cent).

 

Energy was cited as the third-biggest priority by just over half of respondents overall, followed by lighting (43 per cent) but both ranked lower by city representatives at below a third (31 per cent). This is perhaps surprising given that implementing intelligent streetlighting, for example, can bring significant cost- and energy-savings for cities. The installation of smart lighting systems can also provide the digital infrastructure for other smart city applications.

 

Where next?

 

With councils and municipalities around the world having to pilot and make a business case for each smart city application, it is understandable that investment and efforts are being channelled towards specific challenges and priorities.

 

A key finding from the research, though, is the importance of taking a more holistic view and examining how an overarching and integrated smart city strategy can bring more long-term benefits.

 

Download the full report

 

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