In the latest of urban buzz words, ‘smart city’ is leading the way with a whopping 135 million Google search results. While the definitions of what truly makes a city smarter than its counterparts differs from one source to another, the latest research on the matter, from the University of Birmingham, helpfully outlines five key areas that must be addressed in a city’s vision to truly make it smart: digital technology; environmental sustainability; civic initiatives; mobility; and business. “The team discovered that over 70 per cent of activity contributing to a smart city occurred in the first three of these area,” reports Phys.org of the university’s Department of Civil Engineering’s research which used two of the world’s most reported smart cities, Copenhagen and Singapore, as case studies. However, and as a recurring theme when it comes to data, the researchers note a distinct lack of ‘smartness’ indicators for cities, while recognizing the need for each city approach the concept in the way that fits it best, whether socially, politically or infrastructural. Indeed, ‘smart’ in developing countries often requires what many advanced states consider to be basic services (India’s much-covered Smart City initiative list adequate water, electricity and sanitation services before any mention of IT or connectivity), while other definitions include a measure of the quality of life, human capital and resources and smart citizenship, often when referring to developed economies in Europe and the USA.
Nevertheless, with the notion of smart cities likely to stay at the top of government agendas in the foreseeable future – last month’s World Government Summit reiterated the trend – and with real estate, construction, transport tech and surveillance companies alike clamouring for contracts for proposed developments, perhaps it’s useful to pose a few questions to separate the true efforts from the marketing ploys.
Is Your City Connected?
Smart cities have digital technology at their core. From smart cards for public transport to digitized bureaucracy, London, for example, has long been leading the way when it comes to efficiently providing citizens with communication channels and services online, while their Oyster card public transport system has been in operation since 2003. As the most surveyed city in the world, however, we can begin to notice the plot holes in an overly-smart city, as privacy and the use of data generated from connected devices become the concern du jour. Nevertheless, a smart city has digital literacy at its core, meaning those with a younger and more educated population are well prepared to not only utilize digital and online services but demand them. India’s Indore – slated to become one of the government’s 100 Smart Cities projects – is perfectly poised in this sense: it’s overwhelmingly millennial population are highly educated, with two high caliber institutes located there, alongside employment opportunities at tech giants TCS and Infosys, free public Wi-Fi and an efficient bus rapid transit system. Meanwhile, Singapore has benchmarked what it means to be a Smart City with super trees collecting energy through solar panels and climate data through sensors, will dispersing Wi-Fi. However, being a smart city isn’t only about a collection of gadgets sending signals nor digital services facilitating everyday life – it’s also about what’s done with the data collected. Chicago has managed to pre-empt rat infestations by monitoring garbage cans with sensors; cities across the UK have developed ‘dashboards’ that visualize a whole host of real-time data from a plethora of sources and Seattle’s Police Department can identify high crime areas with an interactive map. Intelligent use of data is the key when differentiating a connected city from an Orwellian one, as the issue of data governance took centre stage at London’s recent IoT Tech Expo.
Is Your City Sustainable?
With the world recently coming together in Paris to agree to actively work to reduce emissions by 2020, environmental sustainability is firmly on the agenda for cities as much as countries. Maintainable resources and clean energy are, of course, the benchmarks of any sustainable city, but when it comes to a sustainable smart city, technology and data once again become the core for planning, executing and monitoring the effects of current systems and proposed solutions. Canada’s Alberta Energy interestingly categorizes energy efficiency itself as ‘the fifth fuel’ and an important step to tackling all sorts of environmental woes; by intelligently monitoring energy usage and giving traditionally low-tech infrastructure an IoT upgrade, cities can make strides in combatting inefficiencies and waste in water, electricity and gas usage, as well as transport and waste management. Creating these ‘smart grids’ with the cooperation of city department has seen such networks in the UK cities of Glasgow, Bristol, Milton Keynes and more identify patterns and inefficiencies through data analysis and concurrent redistribution of resources. Meanwhile, a more traditionalist approach to sustainability, through recycling, urban farming, the promotion of green modes of transport and resource conservation remain crucial to a sustainable city and are best attained through education and policy that looks to the future.
Is Your City Engaged?
There’s one component of a city that holds it all together, whether it’s smart or not, and that’s its citizens. Civic engagement remains the crux of a functioning society, and whether digital or traditional, communication channels and participatory platforms are encouraged by smart city stakeholders. Even in the world’s freest democracy, civic engagement remains low outside of the polling stations – and that’s only every four years. Smart cities necessitate an ongoing dialogue, and social media is perhaps one of the best tools to do so. We find politicians and city officials increasingly visible on such networks, opening up direct communication paths to decisionmakers, and sentiment analysis tools can capture and analyse public opinion based on language, tone and frequency. Meanwhile, digitizing state services serves to capture data on engagement and otherwise, though many analysts and activists note that while technology can add another layer of communication, it cannot and should not replace “the face-to-face interaction that is more important than ever.” A smart city, then, is not just one where you can tweet your city council, but one where the opportunities for citizens to have their voice heard are publicized, encouraged and inclusive. An even smarter city is one where citizens, educational organizations and NGOs take it upon themselves to create the tools that facilitate dialogue among themselves, and between the citizenship and the city. Apps like SeeClickFix, which allows community members to set up local groups to record and respond to neighbourhood issues, and Street Bump, which uses smartphone sensors to automatically detect and report potholes on the roads, are just a few examples of grassroots city participation, and the data generated by applications like these are increasingly on the radars of governments which are often too inflexible to quickly deal with areas of discontent.
How Does Your City Move?
Mobility and urban life go hand-in-hand. The ease and efficiency of the movement of people, goods and knowledge are more and more a core of city development strategy. The term ‘smart mobility’ however is vague and can encompass several dimensions of movement. The most obvious one, of course, is the movement of people and public transport is in fact experiencing a renaissance after decades of cars as kings. Bus Rapid Transit Systems, light railways and even suspended cable cars are more and more prominent in cities that tackle transport issues from a solution-seeking point of view, rather than an idealist one. Latin American cities are leading the way in this respect, realizing that a majority of citizens cannot afford cars to begin with, and so look for novel and efficient methods of transport that leverage the other facets of city smartness: modern urban transport should be connected, environmentally sustainable, accessible to every citizen and economically viable. From trip data analysis that uses vehicle sensors and smart ticketing systems to change, increase or decrease public transport routes, to dedicated lanes and a network of sensors that allow buses or trains to talk to one another, there’s no shortage of ways for mobility to be elevated using technology and educated infrastructural developments. Meanwhile, third party innovations and solutions are appearing more and more – from crowdsourced traffic and sensor-based parking apps, to real time journey planners and car and bicycle sharing services – creating data for urban planners and ease of movement for citizens. However, and in fitting with the previously mentioned mandate for sustainability in a smart city, the smartest cities are the ones who are focusing on walkability and cyclability, preparing for an automotive-free future.
How Does Your City Do Business?
By now you can probably tell that the facets of smartness are often interconnected and interdependent. Perhaps the most crucial question faced by cities looking for positive developments is, who’s paying for it? While government spending is often concentrated in cities, the private sector – alone or through PPPs – is best poised to roll out smart schemes in the aforementioned sectors, while stimulating the economy and creating jobs through investment. On the other hand, cities that create incentives for corporations and entrepreneurs alike often see positive urban development that leverages on the private sector’s ability to be more agile and disruptive than the public sector. These developments then become more sustainable than a one-time project or a lump-sum investment as it’s in the businesses’ best interest to keep making money. While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that a smart city has the tech and IT industries at its economic core, that’s only one path. Yes, innovation tends to breed further innovation and the investment opportunities in tech-based industries are only growing as we enter the most connected and automated time of human history, but a real smart city creates the right economic environments for business to flourish, regardless of industry. In fact, the smartest cities of them all are the ones that focus economic development on the sectors that most suit their resources instead of simply following trends.