We’re asking the wrong questions about Smart Cities

by Eddie Copeland

Smart phones. Smart watches. Smart homes. Smart grids.

Prefix almost any noun with ‘smart’ and you have yourself a technological revolution. If you believe the hype, almost any problem can be solved or situation made better if only the device is smart enough.

Adopting the same language to talk about ‘smart cities’ leads to unintended consequences. It implies that the problems of modern urban living could be cured if only the right technology was applied. Like the difference between the first mobile phone and the first smart phone, smart cities are envisaged as a radical step change in technology; a future vision of urban living that is somehow categorically different – and fundamentally better – than the ‘dumb’ cities of today. They are covered in sensors. Buildings dynamically respond to their environment. Traffic is automated into smooth circulation. Streetlights know to dim or switch off when no one is there. NASA-style data centres run complex analytics models to bring synchronicity to the chaotic urban jungle.

Many policymakers seem to believe their job is to find a way to catapult the UK’s cities into this smarter future as quickly as possible. This has led them to try to answer questions such as:

– How do we prove the business case for investing in smart city infrastructure?
– How do we ensure smart city technology will be future proof?
– What are the technical components of a City-as-a-Platform?
– What smart city solutions should cities buy and how will local authorities afford them?

Yet these are the wrong questions to ask. That is because the reality of smart cities – at least for the UK – is both more mundane and vastly more important.

Welcome to the jungle…

Compared with today, the cities of the future may indeed look different. They will almost certainly make greater use of technology. Life may well be more efficient and coordinated. But the journey there will not be the result of a dramatic procurement exercise in which local authorities buy a ‘smart city’ solution. Simply adding sophisticated technology to a city does not make a city smarter, any more than having a smartphone makes a person smarter.

That is because cities are not collections of buildings and infrastructure but communities of people: they will be ‘smart’ only to the extent that the people within them have the information they need to improve their lives and the intelligence and insight to act upon it. When speaking about concepts such as ‘city-as-a-platform’ we miss the point entirely if we believe the platform is a layer of technologies upon which services and human activities take place. The platform in a city is the citizens themselves – technology should build upon and augment their activities.

It is also true that local authorities do not have the financial luxury to gamble on implementing systems that have not been tried and tested over the long term. So what should they do? To my mind, local authorities’ single most important task is to stimulate demand for data.

Here’s how and why:

1) Get their own house in order:
Local authorities need to use data in their day-to-day operations and strategic decision making. Yet as I explained in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, most councils and their public sector partners have barely scratched the surface of using the information they already have. Data analytics are rarely used to target resources. Arrangements to systematically share data between different public sector bodies to increase coordination have mostly not been put in place. (Take, for example, that the GLA takes virtually no data from London boroughs.) And with a few notable exceptions, most city authorities lack the in-house data expertise to analyse and use their own information. Why then, are so many cities in a rush to bring in even more information through IoT sensors? Until data underpins the core operations of every aspect of local government, the demand will simply not exist to justify public sector investment in technology that provides yet more information.

2) Work with the private sector to find additional sources of data that do not require new infrastructure:
Once cities become good consumers of their own data, they will start to appreciate the gaps in the information they have and know what additional data they require. A wide range of bodies already have vast swathes of data that could be useful. Mobile phone operators know a huge amount about flows of people. TfL can model people’s movements through the transport network in London. MasterCard knows how and where they spend their money. Google knows what people are searching for; Twitter what they are saying and where they are saying it.

There are, of course, considerable challenges and privacy implications in harnessing such data for cities to use. But given government’s equivocal track record in investing in big tech projects (and the fact that technology advances so much faster than government can respond) we should at least consider what data might be available already before we start spending on massive infrastructure.

3) Create demand for the right digital infrastructure:
Once city authorities have made full use of their own and others’ data, the investment case for procuring or buying access to technologies that provide new, real-time data through IoT devices and digital networks will be apparent. They will have a clear understanding of what value they would derive from better information about the urban environment as it relates to specific problems or activities.

Indeed, if they complete steps 1 and 2, in many cases local authorities will not have to pay for the upfront investment in digital networks at all. Take, for example, that Arqiva is already installing Sigfox networks across 10 UK cities at their own financial risk. The best way that local authorities can support the private sector in taking such significant investments upon themselves is to build demand for the data they will give access to. If they can do that, the business model for both the public and private sectors will be obvious.

In summary, if cities are currently struggling to prove the business case for investing in particular smart city solutions, or wondering what technology they need, that is for a very good reason. They must walk before they can run. They must become good consumers of data. It may sound less dramatic, but the best route towards a smarter urban future will not be to take one giant leap, but a series of small but significant steps.

Follow Eddie Copeland on Twitter @EddieACopeland

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