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Where Now For Smart Cities?

“When people talk about smart cities, they’re really talking about smart energy, smart transportation, smart healthcare, smart education.”

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 


Over the past few hundred years, the population of the US has grown 40 fold, and now stands at around 328 million people, with the vast majority of these living in urban areas.  The role of cities has, therefore, never been greater, and this has fueled a huge amount of interest in the smart city movement.

Unfortunately, this interest has not yet translated into widespread improvements for either officials or citizens.  For instance, research from the Institute of Engineering and Technology shows that the general public are largely ambivalent about smart city technologies, with precious few able to identify any real benefits thus far.

This is perhaps in part due to the somewhat haphazard approach to the development of smart city technologies, with research from the University of Reading highlighting the general lack of strategy among cities around the world.  Indeed, just 25% of the cities they assessed had as much as a smart city action plan, with the majority of those cities with such a plan focusing exclusively on open data initiatives.  It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that research from McKinsey found that the smart city movement is at an incredibly early stage in its development.

The report highlights a number of possible smart city applications, all of which are on the market to some extent, but few of which are adopted widely.  They suggest that better deployment of such applications could have widespread benefits, from fewer fatalities to shorter commute times.

Smarter citizens

Part of the problem is that many smart city initiatives take an excessively technology-driven approach, with citizen involvement almost a byproduct.  It’s a failing that software company PTC argues is behind many of the lacklustre returns seen by smart city projects to date.

“When people talk about smart cities, they’re really talking about smart energy, smart transportation, smart healthcare, smart education,” says Samta Bansal, marketing and strategy leader for GE’s Intelligent Cities initiative. “They’re talking about many separate verticals. But what’s more important is the convergence of those verticals into a comprehensive system with citizens at the center.”

What’s more, research from the University of Glasgow suggests that the most successful smart cities tend to be in cities with the most global footprint.  The researchers suggest that the global engagement and outreach is far from a by-product of this success, but instead fundamental to it.  What’s more, the most successful initiatives also had a socially-oriented approach, with public engagement and sustainable development at the heart of this social purpose.

Resilient cities

Research from the University of Colorado Boulder underlines the importance of not only making our cities smarter, but also more resilient.  Their analysis of urban development over the last 200 years shows the changes witnessed in land use, population change and urbanization.

“This data gives you an opportunity to understand urban development in a new way and from that, to plan smarter,” the researchers explain. “Cities have always been changing and we now have a lot more information to understand those changes than we had before.”

The researchers tap into a wide range of data sources to understand both how urbanization has changed over time, and to then predict the impact natural disasters can have on community resilience, or the future changes in urban sprawl or gentrification.

“In terms of local planning, if you were trying to pinpoint places that are vulnerable to coastal hazards, or heat exposure, or potential gentrification, these data could help you pinpoint the area of your city or the part of your community or neighborhood that’s most at risk to change. It empowers local policy and development efforts to plan smarter for the future,” the researchers explain.

Future pandemics

Part of this resilience, of course, is against the threat of pandemics, and we’ve already seen some interesting examples of smart city technologies in use to help curb the spread of the coronavirus this year, including real-time heatmaps in public spaces, the use of drones to spray disinfectant, robots serving as safe-distance ambassadors, and remote temperature monitoring systems.

It’s perhaps fair to say, however, that most of these applications have been dreamt up after the outbreak of covid-19 this year, rather than as part of planning for such pandemics.  Now is the time to learn the lessons from the current crisis to ensure our cities are better prepared for next time, and indeed so that our cities are better placed to help viruses spread in the first place.

The deployment of track and trace systems underlines the crucial role trust plays in their success, and research highlights how trust is equally important in successful smart city projects.  We increasingly have the technology to perform complete individual-level track and tracing via geolocation data, biometric sensors and CCTV image recognition, but such surveillance has Orwellian overtones, and few among us would readily succumb to such a world.

It’s vital, therefore, that any systems help to build trust rather than erode it, and complete alignment between the goals of individuals and the greater good is likely to be required to achieve that.  The provision of timely and credible information about important issues, while disabusing false information that pushes for attention, go a long way towards fermenting trust among the public.

Effective smart city solutions require citizens to volunteer data. For example, keeping citizens updated with real-time information about crowding in a public space depends on collecting individual location data in that space.

Individual-level data is also useful to coordinate responses during emergencies. Contact tracing, for instance, has emerged as an essential tool in slowing the contagion.

Technology-based smart city initiatives can enable the collection, analysis and reporting of such data. But misuse of data erodes trust, which dissuades citizens from voluntarily sharing their data.

City planners need to think about how they can balance the effectiveness of tech-based solutions with citizens’ privacy concerns. Independent third-party auditing of solutions can help ease these concerns. The MIT Technology Review’s audit report on contact-tracing apps is one example during this pandemic.

It is also important to create robust data governance policies. These can help foster trust and encourage voluntary sharing of data by citizens.

Using several case studies, the consulting firm PwC has proposed a seven-layer framework for data governance. It describes balancing privacy concerns of citizens and efficacy of smart city initiatives as the “key to realizing smart city potential.”

As we emerge from this pandemic, we will need to think carefully about the data governance policies we should implement. It’s important for city officials to learn from early adopters.

While these important issues coming out of smart city design involve our behavior as citizens, modifying behavior isn’t enough in itself. Civic leaders also need to rethink the design of our city systems to support citizens in areas like public transport, emergency response, recreational facilities and so on. Active collaboration between city planners, tech firms and citizens will be crucial in orchestrating our future cities and hence our lives.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
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