Ahead of her participation on a panel at the RICS World Built Environment Forum Summit (23-24 April, InterContinental London), Anne Kerr, Global Head of Cities, Mott MacDonald, talks to Sarah Wray about how more effective use of data can help tackle some of our most pressing security issues.
In this Q&A, Anne pinpoints four key areas of focus for success: People-centred use of data and technology; prioritising the most critical issues; planning much further ahead; and moving from being reactive to proactive.
SW: Where do you see the greatest potential for smart cities?
AK: Mott MacDonald’s tagline is “Improving People’s Lives” and I think we need to start there. While data and its power for cities is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, there’s a lot of esoteric discussion. It’s important to put data and smart cities in the context of what this means for people on a daily basis, and their ease of going about their daily lives, as well as safety and security.
It’s expected that by 2030, we will need 50% more energy globally, 40% more water and 30% more food. This affects everyone and shows clearly where we have to focus.
People are thinking about what they can do today but not actually what they can do well into the future. And I think that’s where the conversation needs to change. It’s the future use and the future applications, including those applications that we don’t necessarily yet know about that are the interesting aspects.
SW: How can data help?
AK: If you think about the populations in places like Africa, India and China, places with huge populations already and massive projected population increases, there are massive challenges around safety, as well as the security of food, water and energy, for example.
It’s exciting to consider the difference that could be made there. The use of data for making safer cities is a huge opportunity if we think about using it more proactively rather than reactively – that’s very important.
If we think about security at events and some of the tragic events that have happened – we need to look at ways to plan ahead and use data in a proactive way, putting in place ‘triggers’, which spot patterns, enabling action before anything happens. This is proactive; right now, we are reacting.
SW: What concerns still need to be addressed?
AK: Clearly, there are major concerns over cybersecurity, particularly in the context of things like water and energy. Autonomous vehicles are another big area of concern. A lot of people are pushing this, saying it may become a reality in five years’ time but there are risks to address, such as remote hacking.
You can just imagine the disasters of hacked traffic lights causing carnage in cities in a nanosecond. We must take some time to work out how to actually deal with these issues.
Energy insecurity and the future of electricity is another critical issue. If there’s no energy, mobile phone signals are irrelevant if we can’t charge our smartphones. What would happen then? It affects all areas of our lives.
Data is incredibly powerful and important as we go forward, but we have to always think about the unintended consequences and see what we can do to mitigate those before we actually throw ourselves fully into a world where everything is digital.
SW: What should cities be doing now do you think to prepare for the future?
AK: I think what cities and companies need to do is work out what is going to be beneficial for citizens. There is no point in having data or technology if it’s not going to be beneficial to citizens.
There’s a really good example in Kalasatama [a smart city district for pilot projects in Helsinki, Finland]. Here, they are basing development on the idea of saving citizens an hour every day.
That’s using data to be very proactive – it includes using proactive transport alerts around bus and journey times and how busy they are, and diverting people to the best routes.
That’s very tangible if you tell me I get an extra hour of spare time. That’s a really good way of demonstrating the benefits to people.