Smart Cities World speaks to Kulveer Ranger, vice president, strategy and communications at digital transformation services firm Atos, about how connected citizens are influencing the digital transformation of urban centres
Smarter, more connected citizens are influencing the way cities are making digital transformation a priority as populations in urban environments continue to grow. Smart Cities World spoke to Kulveer Ranger, vice president, strategy and communications at digital transformation services firm Atos. Kulveer was formerly the Mayor of London’s director of transport and director of digital.
SCW: What needs to happen next to accelerate the adoption of smart cities?
KR: Before looking forward, it is important to pinpoint where we are in the timeline of city development. United Nations (UN) figures show that 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in an urban environment and by 2050 it is projected to climb to 66 per cent or possibly higher with many millions more people moving to city hotspots.
Most of the top 20 growing cities in the world are in China and India, but irrespective of how much and where the growth is being seen, cities around the globe face the same people challenges. Established metropolises and new growth cities have basic requirements to develop services, maintain and improve quality of life and deal with environment and transport concerns. To allow people the freedom to live and work, a city must be functionally capable – it must meet all logistical, essential and work requirements.
These expectations are foremost for people living in cities, moving to cities and in the minds of those designing, developing and administering cities. There is a balance between making a city smarter while ensuring it is sustainable for the challenge of population growth, maintaining its economic viability and quality of life.
Digital infrastructure is now on a par with the physical amenities we expect to have at our disposal in any modern city. Life is becoming increasingly connected and citizens expect intuitive technologies. Real time, connected services are becoming normalised whether we’re making a bank transaction, accessing public Wi-FI or using the many apps available at our fingertips. Citizens are beginning to take a lead in shaping city development. Therefore, a city must have the availability of digital infrastructure and connectivity to meet our growing digital needs.
SCW: Do you think smart city projects to date have been as citizen-led as they should have been?
KR: Smart city projects are still on the journey of breaking away from the tradition when master planners led city development. These professionals would map the layout of new cities or extensions to an older city, designing all services and functions, business locations, roads, sewerage and other utilities.
The thinking has remained city-led as challenges have grown and pressure on cities has increased. This isn’t a negative; it is simply a natural evolution. City leaders, administrations and governments must think on a short, medium and long-term basis how their city can develop and maintain its competitiveness in a global marketplace. They need their city to attract people in terms of talent and commerce, retain people, but also maintain the opportunities and life chances for people who are there already.
There has been a trend for cities to lead on smart city development, but we are now living in the age of the connected citizen. We are witnessing increasing calls for devolution, through political power, openness and transparency of information, or through the availability of technology to a broad spectrum of society.
A citizen has more opportunities to engage, shape and influence decision making than ever before. Through social media and networks people can be heard more clearly and it is leading to an era of digital democracy. A tweet can be more powerful than anything else a citizen has in their arsenal. So I think smarter cities need to start listening to and focusing on the citizen’s needs first.
SCW: Do you think the competition approach that the US took with its Smart City Challenge that Columbus, Ohio, won is a good approach?
KR: The Smart City Challenge was positive from the perspective that it was a chance for 77 cities to put time and thought into their credentials as a forward-thinking technological hub. Every city that entered has shown an appetite for change and has come away from the competition with a strategy framework to take forward – this has to be a good thing.
Competitiveness has always been a motivator in city planning, but development is a complex problem. As a person who has sat in the heart of city administration in London, there are multiple pressures that can cause inertia. A mayor of any city is always looking to out-do the mayor of another equivalent city. Equally there are political pressures and budget constraints that slow things down. There is also pressure from the public who are expecting change and improvement. We need to adopt and adapt new technologies, and cities must respond. So competition can be a good motivator!
SCW: Do you think the perfect blueprint exists for how to create a smart city?
KR: There is not a perfect city nor perfect blueprint. Many have tried and will continue to do so. We have seen Songdo City in South Korea make an attempt. This experimental environment began in 2001 and residents live an ultra-connected lifestyle with smart traffic measures, networks and high connectivity. There are environmental aims for this city too, to cut CO2 emissions by 70 per cent and reduce water consumption by a third.
Similarly, in the desert, the United Arab Emirates has constructed Masdar. It is intended to be CO2 neutral and waste-free. It has renewable power sources, including a solar power plant, electrically-powered public transport and private cars, and super-energy efficient buildings. These are visions of a future perhaps, but unlike most cities these ‘project cities’ start from a need to evolve.
SCW: How can cities make sure they deliver a smart city that is fit-for-purpose for its citizens?
KR: A smart city is a city that responds and reacts to the requirements of its population. Although all cities have similar requirements, the nuances of those challenges create differences. There are set challenges – air quality, transport, housing pressures, diverse populations, security. Each city is unique and has to take a view of its starting point and decide on its goals. They need to understand, prioritise and adopt the digital technologies that will suit them.
For a city to become smarter it must look at where it is and decide how big the gap is to where it can get to with the application of technology. It must undertake that jump as a whole, taking a broad spectrum of society with it. A city cannot afford to leave any part of its population behind as it makes smart changes. The citizens need to go with it and that provides a time lag of when change occurs. In the past, it has taken time for cities to have a majority that uses the Internet or more recently smartphones. These technologies have to become widespread and embedded.
SCW: How important are technology ecosystems to the creation of smart cities?
KR: Technological ecosystems are incredibly important. The key point is that as we need smarter citizens as well as smarter cities, the ecosystems that allow people to operate within those cities become fundamental. Road, rail, hospitals, police, drainage, utilities, city halls and libraries were the building blocks of traditional cities. Now, digital, connectivity, WI-FI and charging facilities are vital. People need a new set of fundamental infrastructure to function effectively.
Every city has a story and decision makers must remember where it has come from and who is important to its future if it is to thrive. Ultimately, people must remain at the heart of every technological decision and ecosystem.
If you enjoyed this, you might wish to look at the following:
Designing cities for digital citizens, by Salomon Salinas, smart cities lead at Accenture Mobility
Citizens hold key to efficient transport infrastructures
Understanding how people use transport networks is an important part of developing more durable solutions
Call for more citizen-centric smart projects in India
In a new report, IDC says more open governance is needed if India’s smart city programme is to achieve its aims