Building for a smarter future

| The European | 15th March 2016


Every year technology analyst Gartner produces its “hype cycle” for emerging technologies. The hype cycle positions new innovations along a scale that tracks expectations about the technology against real-world usability. New ideas that catch on rapidly climb towards the “peak of inflated expectations” before burning out and crashing into the “trough of disillusionment”. However, those that have something more about them will bounce back again and rise up towards the “peak of productivity”.

Gartner’s 2015 hype cycle for smart cities is particularly busy and eclectic. Innovations include parking meter analytics, car-sharing services and intelligent lampposts. While some of these ideas will become as common as smartphones, others will fizzle out.

The concept of the smart city has been around for decades, and arguably the first instance of such a city was Houston, Texas, which in 1922 deployed the world’s first autonomous traffic lights. Since then, the idea of how technology could make cities smarter and more liveable has evolved dramatically. For instance, line 14 of the Paris Metro has featured driverless trains 1998, and today’s driverless cars, city travel cards and mobile apps like CityPlanner all contribute to making the city smarter.

Looking forward, a new generation of cities are emerging – especially in Asia and the Middle East – which are attempting to harness smart technology and work it into the very fabric of the city. Currently under construction in the UAE is Masdar City, a brand new city masterplan by Foster + Partners. Crucially, Madsar is designed entirely around clean technology, mass public transport and is in harmony with its surrounding environment. While smart cities “built from scratch” such as Masdar or Songdo International Business District in South Korea have the advantage of a carte blanche for creativity, what can the citizens of the world’s already established cities expect from a smarter future?

Hard to define?

As with any new concept, a universal definition of a smart city is hard to come by. A multidisciplinary article in the Lecture Notes on Computer Science defines them as “environments of open and user-driven innovation for experimenting and validating Future Internet-enabled services”. If that feels vague, it’s not totally surprising. A 2013 report by the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills explained that “the concept is not static, there is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient”. 

It is perhaps easier to describe what a smart city might be through examples. The Cognicity Challenge at Canary Wharf in London has brought together various stakeholders in the construction and technology industries to use the area as a kind of laboratory for smart city companies.

Gaia Arzilli, Communications and Engagement Lead at ENTIQ, the innovation consultancy that designed and delivered Cognicity for Canary Wharf Group, introduced me to some of the technologies that have so far been implemented at Canary Wharf. Strawberry Energy is a Serbian firm that creates “smart benches” that use solar energy to provide users with a range of services including wi-fi and phone charging facilities. The benches are more than hotspots for checking your Twitter feed however, as they also measure air pollution in the surrounding area and feed this back to the authorities. “By introducing innovative technology to outdoor furniture, we are really trying to create an environment where people will enjoy staying outside and create a community around the new technology” Ms Arzilli explains. “Often, solar panels or wind turbines are so far off, and you don’t really realise what technology has gone into the energy you use. But Strawberry Energy is really visual”.

What excites the team at Cognicity most is that this kind of technology provides citizens with a more interactive experience of the city. Ms Arzilli explained people have been queuing up to use the benches and they encourage a more positive way of spending free time. Rather than eating lunch at their desks, city workers are encouraged to go outside and engage with one another.

Another rising star in the smart city world is Pavegen, a British firm founded in 2009 by inventor and entrepreneur Laurence Kemball-Cook. Pavegen uses tiles placed on the floor to transform kinetic energy into electricity. The tiles can be deployed in a wide range of environments and convert footfall to power street lights, signs and many more applications. With numerous successful implementations already underway and new iterations on horizon, Pavegen recently completed a round of funding which will help further reduce the unit cost of the tiles, making it more widely available. Mr Kemball-Cook envisions great potential for PaveGen, expecting “that within 3-5 years it will be seen as a globally acceptable technology that’s used throughout every developing city, every developed city, every slum in Africa, every favela in Brazil and anywhere there’s a requirement for cheap and clean energy”.

There is growing excitement around the world about what smart cities, enabled with technology like Pavegen or Strawberry Energy will be like. In the EU, Barcelona, Stockholm and Milton Keynes are seen to be leading the way, although many other cities are playing catch up. In the UK, the government supports Future Cities Catapult, an institution that provides resources, training and support for cities, technology companies and citizens to drive the agenda forward. Peter Madden, Chief Executive of Future Cities, explained how the UK government “is providing a whole range of direct support into the kind of ‘blue sky thinking’ that will help achieve its target of becoming a world leader in the field. This support then extends “right through to the practical application” of these ideas. Glasgow was recently allocated £24m to carry out a smart cities demonstration, while Manchester won £10m to implement a city-wide Internet of Things test bed.

It seems that there is a growing awareness in government of the kinds of opportunities that smart cities can offer citizens. However, are we getting ahead of ourselves too soon? Can smart cities really deliver all they promise, and are we ignoring some of the drawbacks?

Privacy issues

The excitement about smart cities has been tempered by some criticism of the concept. The most common objections cite fears over surveillance. If sensors are able to measure everything regarding a person’s whereabouts, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, comparisons with “big brother” are easy to draw. We have become accustomed to CCTV and city-wide travel cards are the norm, and these do mean that city authorities could, if they had the time, energy and inclination, track an individual’s movements. Smart cities can be expected to enlarge the potential for this kind of snooping.

Mr Madden of Future Cities acknowledges that there will be questions around privacy in the smart cities of the future: “Some cities in the world have got this idea that they’re going to have some sort of city control room, where they’ll get all this data and have someone sitting there running it all. That’s never going to happen because you can never respond to the complexity. We prefer to take the view: why can’t we present this data to citizens, individuals and institutions across the city in ways that help them interact differently”. He sees the data that smart cities collect as similar to the internet, providing platforms for academics, city planners and communities to use the information independently, and to have the freedom to discover new ways of running things. Concerns about snooping are understandable, but there are a number of other more concrete critiques of romanticising the idea.

First, and perhaps foremost, is the question of who defines the problems that the technology intends to solve. There is a fear that giant tech corporations will use their sphere of influence to tailor the smart city concept for their own gain.

Secondly, there is a real potential for politicians to use smart technology as a flashy sticking plaster solution, which fails to deal with deeper and more complex problems. Finally, there are numerous issues related to the digital side of many of these technologies. What happens when bugs in the code running applications cause breakdowns? Are we prepared for a malicious criminal or enemy government hacking into a city’s infrastructure?

Mr Madden’s take on these and other critiques is that these risks are real but manageable. “I think if smart cities are done badly, they could end up like some of the mistakes of the past, because it’s technology being put ahead of people, but I think if smart cities are done well, and we’re actually using data and technology to understand what people want and provide for their needs better, if we build the cities around people then that should help avoid those mistakes”. Mr Madden takes a pragmatic view – new platforms like Airbnb, Uber, CarClub are already changing the way people move around and explore cities, and this is bound to continue. Local governments can respond by acting now to ensure that they have a strategy which encourages these innovations in a way that supports their citizens’ needs and wants.

Whatever the term “smart cities” means exactly, it’s clear that in the coming years there will be a significant growth in the kinds of technology the term incorporates. They will undoubtedly impact on the way people interact with each other, with government and the urban landscape. It will be crucial to prepare for these changes, focus on making different systems interoperable and understand what needs such technology can serve. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that this technology will need to be user-focused: to make people’s lives easier and to tackle environmental challenges, and not used for social engineering purposes.

But there is cause for optimism with this new wave of digital technology. Much of this tech depends by its very nature on people using it – if they don’t find some of the tools on Gartner’s hype cycle useful, they’ll quickly abandon them. As Mr Kemball-Cook put it with Pavegen – “the technology itself is just a tile, but the people make it smart, so you need to have the people to empower the technology to do anything”. 

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