Digital Leaders CEO Giuliano Liguori highlights Italy as an example and warning that pushing ahead with smart city plans should ensure access for the worst off, on an individual and municipal level, as top priority.
It is hard not to feel sorry for urban planners. Faced with the growing pressure to combat climate change, attract business and respond to citizen demands for ever-higher standards of public services, they had their work cut out for them even pre-pandemic.
But we ignore our cities and investing in urban infrastructure, at our peril. The world’s urban population is set to more than double in size by 2050, meaning that seven in 10 people will call a city their home. With more than 80 per cent of global GDP already generated in cities, urbanisation will be the greatest engine of economic growth, not to mention the fact that cities will continue to be the frontline of pandemics.
I am convinced that the best way by far to close development gaps is through smart city projects. Just look at Singapore, where modern, clean, efficient and tech-savvy infrastructure has seamlessly blended into the confines of a traditional city.
Or Masdar City, the purpose-built smart city district of Abu Dhabi, best known for its environmentally sustainable design and infrastructure, but also home to hundreds of innovative businesses, incubating the development of cutting-edge technology.
It would be a cruel twist in global efforts to develop smart city solutions if it ended up exacerbating, rather than narrowing inequalities
That is all easier said than done. Modernising and digitalising cities’ infrastructure on the scale they need requires investment that, often, they just do not have. But when put into practice, ‘smart city’ becomes more than a buzzword: it brings tangible benefits that prove indispensable to securing economic prosperity and sustainable development.
Nowhere offers better proof of this than Italy, where we effectively have two different tiers of infrastructure development: one situation in the north, and another in the south.
Milan is already far along the smart city path: 5G and fibre development is well on track, while it has implemented many smart city projects designed to help citizens’ mobility and protect the local environment.
The past four years have seen the number of hybrid and electric cars triple, while many cars have been taken off the streets and increasingly replaced with routes for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Bosco Verticale, a tower designed by architect Stefano Boeri, is covered by a double skin which both protects it from the summer heat and insulates it from the winter cold – using built-in artificial intelligence to increase its energy efficiency.
Florence is never far behind in EY’s annual ranking of the most infrastructurally developed cities – the Smart City Index – reputed for its quality of life, progress of digital transformation, governmental adaptability, environmental protection and sustainable mobility. This year’s Index also celebrates Bergamo, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Trento, and Turin – again, all northern cities.
The challenges of weaving intricate solutions into some of the world’s oldest and most historic infrastructure can offer lessons for the hundreds of other cities across the world
In arguably the world’s leading host and preserver of antiquities, stamped across almost every Italian city one might mention, it is particularly intriguing that they are becoming world leaders in smart city development.
The challenges of weaving intricate solutions into some of the world’s oldest and most historic infrastructure can offer lessons for the hundreds of other cities across the world seeking to preserve character while moving onto a more futuristic footing.
In the south, however, we see a very different reality. With cities such as Naples, Palermo and Bari ranking towards the lower end, the Smart City Index underscores the persistent economic gap between Italy’s north and south.
Italy proves a good example of the inequalities that smart city projects across the globe risk creating as wealthier nations – and indeed wealthier regions within nations – push ahead with smart city projects. Planners must not focus simply on how technology and innovative planning can create better, greener, smarter places to live, but who that is accessible to.
Italy should serve as both an example and warning that pushing ahead with smart city plans should see ensuring access for the worst off, both on an individual and municipal level, as a top priority. It would be a cruel twist in global efforts to develop smart city solutions if it ended up exacerbating, rather than narrowing inequalities.
Crucially, smart city projects demand investment in infrastructure on a level which, for too long, we have not yet seen. 5G installation and public wi-fi networks need a lot of generating power, for instance; the overhaul of public spaces and adding of greenery to improve airflow for heat transfer takes a considerable degree of planning.
There is also a major – often overlooked – cybersecurity element: as citizens, businesses and technology become increasingly ‘plugged into’ their cities, we must embed awareness of data protection and security by default.
Planners must not focus simply on how technology and innovative planning can create better, greener, smarter places to live, but who that is accessible to
As users of this technology, it is in turn our responsibility to ensure that it is designed, manufactured, and deployed with the same secure strategy in mind.
As they grow, we should therefore regard our smart cities just as we would as our banks. We must invest in them, put money into them, all the while taking as many precautions as possible to keeping them secure. With enough ambition and political will, these strategic investments will pay off, and unlock the true value of the smart city.
Giuliano Liguori, founder and CEO of digital consultancy Digital Leaders, is a technologist, an influencer in the digital transformation and artificial intelligence space. He has advised the Italian government on the digitalisation of its transport infrastructure in the south.