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How open innovation can help make smart cities a reality

Cities have often benefited from innovation but have not typically led the charge, says Betsy Plattenburg, executive director of Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners. But times are changing.  

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The term open innovation is often misunderstood. Many companies and businesses think about the concept exclusively as leveraging others’ technology to drive their own innovation. Or, that their organisation should work with consumers to better understand what product or enhancement to make next.

 

While these are important steps in the process, open innovation is much more than creating a memorandum of understanding or customer pilot; it is the bringing together of unique, non-traditional partners to create tomorrow’s innovation. Cities have often benefited from innovation, but they have not typically led the charge. Yet times are changing.

 

Cities must re-think their role

 

The internet of things and data interoperability are forcing cities to think about their role in new ways. In the near future, cities and citizens will be interconnected in more ways than they probably care to think about today, from transportation to healthcare; energy to media; and daily communication.

 

If citizens are overconnected now, this is only the beginning of what is to come. Even construction companies will get involved as intelligent buildings are incorporated into smart city ecosystems.

 

Interdependent, connected cities of the future will need to be mindful about connecting both technology and people.

 

Interestingly, these companies are not necessarily linked by industry or service but are moving rapidly towards technology interdependence. Government, industry and academia will need to adopt the idea of open innovation to secure vitality, security and growth in a quickly changing world.

 

One cannot go it alone. Interdependent, connected cities of the future will need to be mindful about connecting both technology and people.

 

Open innovation at work

 

Open innovation is built on the idea of bringing individuals together who might not otherwise meet or exchange ideas. As technology becomes more intertwined, industry leaders will need to make that extra effort to meet with one another and understand how decisions play out downstream from the decision-maker.

 

While always important, if artificial intelligence is making decisions without the ability to comprehend the consequences, people will need to communicate more not less. Facilitating diverse conversations will enable smart city innovation that works not just in theory but in practice.

 

Change is coming. Within large companies, innovation teams are exploring new vertical markets, from utilities considering delivering the internet over electrical lines to telecommunications companies playing a role in autonomous vehicle development. Expertise is being applied and monetised in new ways.

 

Open innovation is the bringing together of unique, non-traditional partners to create tomorrow’s innovation.

 

Five years ago, electric scooters were not on the horizon. Today, they clog city streets and have created legal and practical challenges, not to mention a very speedy way to cross town. Scooters quickly introduced and socialised the concept of micromobility, opening entirely new markets for everything from charging to food delivery. Scooters have forced vehicle manufacturers, logistics companies and city governments to reimagine the future.

 

Embracing innovation

 

Cities can fight change or embrace it. Smart cities are bringing all the players together to understand what opportunities, challenges and problems come along with similar new technologies. And, while no one can predict the future, being knowledgeable about what is on the short- and long-term horizon can inform decisions that will affect citizens.

 

Cities can play a unique open innovation role. While tech companies excel at early product development, testing in a predictable lab setting is only the first step. The next step is to place your product in the real world to learn what you do not know.

 

Cities excel at owning and operating infrastructure like roads and sidewalks. They also work with utilities and telecommunications companies to provide basic services to residents. If cities offer sections of their infrastructure to tech companies and convene their largest service providers to do the same, they can create test environments to jumpstart innovation.

 

Smart cities are bringing all the players together to understand what opportunities, challenges and problems come along with similar new technologies.

 

Cities also manage school systems. Workers of the future need to be proficient in both understanding and utilising technology. Many countries teach coding as the equivalent of a foreign language. They require proficiency. Starting in 2020, coding will be mandatory in Japanese schools.

 

Look around at all of the devices used today and think about a future – the internet of things – when devices will talk (via code) to other devices. Individuals with these skills will have steady, well-paying employment opportunities. After all, smart cities will require smart workers.

 

This learning does not have to be linear and will not end when a standard education programme is complete. Smart companies and smart cities will provide technology education on-demand for everyone who wants to learn. Acquisition of technical knowledge will be expected, admired and rewarded. Innovation requires curiosity about what could be.

 

Technology’s ongoing evolution

 

Air taxis, pharmacy deliveries via drone and robots dropping off lunch are among the many technologies that once sounded far-fetched and yet are being deployed today. A recent study by Bloomberg showed that 80 per cent of millennials would be willing to buy an autonomous car. By contrast, the same study showed that over 50 per cent of people aged 55 and over said they would never trust a robot to take the wheel. These two age groups will have to find common ground to advance autonomous technology.

 

Malcom X once said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

 

Smart cities are identifying key stakeholders and partners and bringing them together to collaborate. They are not only open to innovation but are facilitating open innovation in new and exciting ways.

 

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