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Smart cities can change the world – if we radically rethink the approach

Tom Goodwin has high hopes for how smart cities could improve our lives. To get there, though, he says we need to think differently, open up and look further ahead. Tom is Head of Innovation at Zenith and his book, Digital Darwinism, was recently published.


"For progress to be unleashed in smart cities, we need everything to be able to talk to everything." Tom Goodwin

"When everything is connected, transformation is sudden and exponential." Tom Goodwin

Software and better utilisation of existing infrastructure deliver better results in cities.

Have you ever noticed how boring most solutions to physical problems are? Want to speed up trains between Paris and London? Lay new track and make trains go faster. Want to accelerate cars on freeways? Build another lane.


We favour expensive, uncreative solutions because they feel safer but that’s because they’re all we’ve ever known. Big problems get assigned big budgets.

Imagine being the person that thinks we can increase traffic on roads with dynamic speed limits, or by drawing lines on the road. Imagine the vulnerability of saying perhaps trains don’t need to go faster but we could supply high speed Wi-Fi and make the journey more productive. We could reduce dwell times at stations by letting people board earlier trains.

Until recently we’ve only ever lived in an era of tangible solutions. Engineering has always been about solving problems with building work – hardware and construction, not software and thinking.

If you need to increase capacity at Heathrow airport, the only options have been a question of what and where to build – how many new runways and which towns need to be flattened, how much it will cost and how long it will take. Improved transport typically means more infrastructure – faster buses, more routes, bigger trains. The canvas for ideation has been one of physicality.

Don’t assume

Our built environment is a reflection of our continued assumption that big problems need big, physical solutions, that challenging the brief is cheating. We’ve never considered that the solution to the housing problem might not be about construction but rather redistributing wealth or jobs, or changing the laws about tiny homes, or letting freelancers borrow more easily.

Security problems are solved with new surveillance cameras, new recycling goals mean a new garbage truck schedule, increased populations and greater demands see additional power stations built.

Increasingly it’s clear that these are unimaginative solutions, and they’re based on the assumptions of the past. More and more it’s software and better utilisation of the existing environment that provides far greater results – way more quickly and with far, far lower investment levels. Engineering needs to morph to become a creative pursuit, one involving software, behavioural economics and empathy, not one of endless incremental construction.

What we’ve already seen from Uber and Airbnb, RelayRides, WeWork and more, is how platforms can add a layer of smartness to the real world to get more from what we already have.

We need to consider the world around us as layers of construction interwoven with connectivity, accessed via devices. It needs to be viewed as an ecosystem, not parts. We need to think about the Internet of Things and how it can change possibilities.

IoT: The new toolbox for cities

Smart cities are primarily about creating a better life for all – they’re about freeing up time, reducing costs, cutting energy use and all primarily by using existing infrastructure better. They are the result of a complex layered system of components including near endless inputs, constant fast low latency, robust connectivity, refinement and analysis of data, decisions and actions that result from that data and then devices to act upon them.

In this landscape cars use GPS positioning, accelerometers and a whole host of other sensors to know where they are, where they are going and where they are relative to each other. Roads monitor traffic flow, cameras detect faces, air sensors detect pollution. Real-time train information is meshed with weather data and congestion. This forms an almost all-knowing cloud of wisdom, a single system processing data, analysing trends, using predictive analysis and AI to anticipate trends and to make decisions. Traffic is rerouted dynamically, public transport is rescheduled, mobility apps redirect people to more appropriate sensors, hospitals are readied for illness. The list goes on.

The promise of smart cities has long been with us and it’s being developed across the world – from the smart traffic of Singapore, the open data of Tel Aviv, the smart commuting of Toronto, or public smart cards in Hong Kong – but it’s yet to be brought together. While much of this infrastructure already exists, the key stage is in building the systems and protocols that glue everything together and, in particular, creating open systems that everyone can access.


Smart cities rely on network theory

Being the very first person in the world with a phone was useless; you couldn’t speak to anyone.

Being part of a pair of phones changed little, nor did having a select few people own phones. It was only when the majority of people you knew and most businesses had them that the power of phones took off. The same process repeated for smartphones and the internet. When everything is connected, transformation is sudden and exponential.

We’re facing the same dynamic network effects with smart cities. When some car parks know how many empty spaces they have, when some roads sense congestion, when some trains have real-time information, we’re not unleashing the power. We’re in a hybrid period where technology isn’t uniformly distributed. A handful of cars are self-driving, but most are dumb and not connected. Others are augmented cars that learn, but few talk to each other.

For progress to be unleashed, what we need is everything to talk to everything.


It can’t just be cars talking to other cars – it needs to be the intended route of every car shared with the cloud, the known locations and speed of trains, the current and predicted weather. When smart cities know everything, then life will be transformed.

It’s this environment, our lives will be radically different. You won’t need to own a car when driverless connected cars circle endlessly and you access and pay for mobility like a data subscription on your phone. You won’t need vast new garages in city centres when unused cars merely move to find other customers. You won’t need to build new roads when sensors can pack more vehicles per mile and where road accidents make the news. Public transport and the travel planning apps that follow will be multimodal, journeys will be routed via buses, cars, trains and planes. Ticketing will be based on time of day, distance travelled and mode of transport, and it will be automatic and retrospective, direct to the phone or operator billing.

The smart cities of the future will be based on very new dynamics. We won’t own so much and will buy access. Cities can spread out further in the knowledge that commuting will no longer be dead time but can be used for sleeping or entertainment, freed from the burden of driving. VR headsets and plentiful rich video chat could make the need to meet in person seem less important. Electricity may be generated locally and liberated from the grid. Safer cities could result from deep learning and facial analysis spotting criminal activity before it gets out of hand and using predictive analytics to stop misdemeanours in action.

This time, it’s personal

But more than this – on a personal level life will improve too. Technology will work to solve problems, to increase and improve free time and to make us healthier, more productive and more mindful. IoT in the home means smarter living, with fridges that replenish themselves, homes that unlock themselves as you enter, and music that follows you around the house. From reminders on our wearables to prompts to turn on lights, we’re going to be wrapped in a layer of ambient help that reduces the cognitive burden on our lives.


The future is open


The more we can build systems now that allow expansion and enable openness to the future, the better. We need open APIs, open data and open protocols to allow people to build new software, business models and use cases on top of this. The future of humanity is likely to be in cities.

We need to think now about how to pave foundations for the cities of the future – not only to cope with expansion, but to allow humanity to flourish and to do so sustainably.


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