Smart Cities: concept vs reality

Smart City

Written by Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet

The beginnings of the Smart City initiative could be traced back to the introduction of traffic lights in the 1900s. For all the advancements in technology and complicated algorithms of today, a Smart City retains the goal of the traffic light: using technology to make things work better.

The idea has seized hold of city planners worldwide in recent years as new and cheaper digital devices, better internet connections and the rise of Big Data have allowed dreams to become possibilities. Existing cities are finding innovative ways to use data and technology to improve their systems and new cities are being built from the ground up with ‘smart’ infrastructure to improve the lives of those living within them. The ambitions are grand and the action is necessary. Issues such as pollution, congestion, crime and social isolation are serious concerns that digital technology and data sharing could ease.

The potential of a city with a data-driven infrastructure is exciting but also requires an adjustment of expectations. Smart Cities will not be the answer to all our problems nor completely transform the way we live overnight. Rather they will be incremental transformations that will enhance our lives through a combination of small projects and wider infrastructure changes underpinned by data sharing.

Something as simple as being able to use a contactless card on the London Underground is a Smart City initiative, as is the Casserole Club that links home cooks with elderly diners online. Health and social care could really benefit from ‘smarter’ approaches to their services, such as driverless cars ferrying patients to appointments to avoid the challenge and expense of hospital parking. With the right funding and support, bigger initiatives can be added, such as intelligent lighting and waste management systems. Driverless cars will become integral, as will smart parking systems and energy-efficient buildings. The possibilities are almost endless. 

As each country already has its hubs of commerce and culture, most Smart Cities will be retro-fits of existing urban centres. This brings its own set of challenges, but also facilitates the use of technology and data to improve city living for the incumbent population and tackle existing issues with digital solutions.

Amsterdam is a city to be held up as a case study for gradual, intelligent transformation. Since 2009, the city has been undergoing a process of innovation which was recognised in 2016 by the European Commission’s European Capital of Innovation Award (accompanied by a handy prize of 950,000 euros to support ongoing efforts). The Dutch city planners have invited citizens to submit ideas and run pilots, with an appointed CTO overseeing the operation to create a coherent whole from the successful projects. The idea of ‘the Internet of Everything’ underpins their approach, and data is the raw material to maintain the whole. They are also determined to put their people at the heart of the programme, seeing improving citizen’s lives as the goal and Smart City initiatives as the vehicle.

Experts and analysts have poured over Amsterdam’s approach and various key lessons have been identified. A CTO is a necessity and an inventory is the starting point to create meaningful change. Private-sector data is critical but citizens also need to be encouraged to contribute – they bring ideas and become invested in the future of their home. There will also need to be data sharing between government departments, with a connected system likely to better serve the populace and make best use of available resources. This highlights another complication – a Smart City vision requires long-term thinking that is not tethered to a particular political party as the process will likely take longer than they remain in office.

There are also less successful operations from which to glean guidance. India’s government has faced criticism for a Smart Cities Mission that plans to modernise 100 cities by 2020. There is little provision for the almost 14 million households living in slums or the 3 million living on the streets. A rush for developing countries’ cities to become ‘smart’ may exacerbate existing social issues, which could undermine long-term development.

South Korea’s Songdo also raises questions about what makes a city special. The city was designed as a Smart City and built from the ground up. Construction is not yet complete although 100,000 residents have already moved in. There has been praise for the sustainable initiatives and the ample green spaces but people have described Songdo as ‘a little creepy’. Even the CIO for the US developer Gale International, Jonathan Thorpe, admitted that “You’re trying to create a diversity and a vitality that organic development creates, in and of itself, so it’s a challenge to try and replicate that in a masterplan setting.”

Therein lies one of the biggest challenges facing those seeking to create cities that are both smart and soulful. Cities are products of history and happenings, cultures colliding and communities evolving over time. Mathematical algorithms may remove some of the many irritants of living and working in a congested city, but could they also extract some of the place’s spirit or stifle its organic evolution? 

We need to find that sweet spot between technological innovation and natural development. Inviting citizens to take part in the ‘smartening’ of their city could help realise this, and once the layman starts to reap the rewards there will be no looking back. In much the same way that all large-scale inventions change society, from the creation of fire to mobile phones, the human race will adapt to a new normal and find space within a Smart City to evolve, innovate and create – just as they always have done.


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