How can smart cities best serve their people?

Sooner or later, said fabled management theorist Peter Drucker, every brilliant idea degenerates into hard work. That sentiment is fast becoming highly relevant to proponents of so-called smart cities, as the realities of implementing their underlying technology become apparent. 

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How can smart cities best serve their people?

On the face of it, smart cities are the answer to many of the world’s most pressing urban problems. From congestion and pollution management to resource planning and crime reduction, the technology that makes cities ‘smart’ promises to revolutionise the way we live and work together. That technology is largely based on data collected from networked sensors attached to everything from public transport vehicles and infrastructure to water and electricity meters, street lights, parking meters and even rubbish bins. Collecting data from this Internet of Things (IoT) allows city planners to manage resources in any number of interesting ways; plot optimal time and money-saving waste collection routes, for example, or alert drivers to nearby available parking spaces.

Urban pressures
Most cities around the world are currently running smart-city pilot schemes, for the very good reason that most of them have significant resourcing problems. As populations grow, public transport services and road congestion are bringing cities to a standstill. Natural resources, too, are under serious pressure – take Cape Town as just one high-profile example, which in early 2018 was dangerously close to running out of water. Finding ways to manage finite urban resources more effectively and optimise their usage by citizens is not a technological luxury; it is, in most cities, an absolute necessity. IoT technology promises to bring new life to old procurement models and provide quick return on investments in city infrastructure across the board.

Actually putting smart-city technology to effective use is, of course, much harder than it looks on paper. Even the most forward-thinking cities are discovering that turning technology pilots into schemes that reflect public policy and really serve citizens is hard work. In Barcelona, long regarded as a smart-city pioneer, those pilot projects look impressive: 500km of ultra-high bandwidth optical fibre; free Wi-Fi implemented via street lighting; and a variety of sensors monitoring everything from waste bins to air quality, among much else. They are already making an impact; city parks are using less water, for example, a critical issue in a conurbation where water is a scarce resource. Bus services have become more reliable, with simplified ticketing systems and greatly improved timetable information updates at bus stops.

How can smart cities best serve their people?

The public good
So far, so good. But as Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s chief technology officer and digital commissioner, told the Financial Times in a 2017 interview: “City Hall ended up with a lot of data, with a lot of dashboards, and yet without any capacity to really use data and information to take better decisions for the public good, or give ownership of the data to citizens.” Such problems are widespread in smart-city projects – even in Amsterdam, another high-profile smart-city pioneer. To create the data platform for its 80-plus smart-city pilots, Amsterdam first had to inventory 12,000 datasets across 32 city departments, according to a 2016 case study by the MIT Sloan Management Review. Such projects are a real act of faith, given the very limited short-term payoffs – and, said Amsterdam chief technology officer Ger Baron, “a boring, boring job”.

Many other problems with typical IoT city projects quickly reveal themselves once the technology is implemented. Back in Barcelona, for example, smart parking meters turned out to be of limited use; parking spaces in most cities are typically grabbed serendipitously within a few seconds by passing drivers, making automated systems for guiding drivers to free spaces largely redundant. Other city projects have been criticised for being insufficiently inclusive. In India, for example, which has promised to build 100 smart cities by 2020, few provisions have been made in the plans for mixed-income neighbourhoods, social housing, street vendors or women and children’s security, according to one highly critical report. 

Problems like these reflect one of the awkward truths about cities. However good the technology, they are often simply too big and too messy for even the best-implemented pilots to translate into widespread benefits for citizens. Difficulties persist even in cities built from the ground up with smartness in mind, such as Songdo in South Korea or Masdar City in Abu Dhabi – both conceived with grand ambitions, yet both struggling to attract the citizens and businesses needed to fulfil them. Cities regularly described as ‘eerily quiet’ may not actually qualify as cities at all.

People power
So how can smart cities best serve their people and fulfil the promise of the technology? Some clues may come from places such as London, where Transport for London, provider of the citywide Tube and bus services, has opened up its data sets to third-party developers free of charge. The result is a rapidly growing and highly innovative set of apps and services that present travel information to citizens in a variety of creative ways – enabling people to decide for themselves how they take advantage of the smart fabric of the city. 

Such open, market-focused approaches are not new, of course. Google’s Maps product has become the de facto platform for a dizzying array of smart-city-based services, thanks largely to the fact that it is available for anyone to use; and, of course, that works the other way round, too. You can find the quickest local transport route or book an Uber directly from within Google Maps, thus blurring the boundaries between public and private services in ways that actually benefit citizens. Maybe, for now, that’s as smart as most of us really need our cities to be; easily navigable and discoverable. After all, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. That’s a lesson that the world’s smart-city planners may need to learn if their projects are ever to really take off. 

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