Tech in the City

Technology experts and government officials from around the world descended on London to discuss the smart cities of today and the future cities of tomorrow. Rob Horgan was in attendance to see how it played out.

It is time to smarten up. With IoT devices popping up where we live, work and even eat, the future cities of tomorrow are being ushered in today. What exactly that city should look like was up for debate at the two-day ‘Smart to future cities’ conference in London. 

While speakers disagreed on what a successful smart city is, how it should be implemented and what it can achieve, the buzzword on everyone’s lips was ‘efficiency’ – for citizens first, and then the economy second. 

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer in Ghent, explained that a shift in mindset around seven years triggered the smart cities of today. “Before 2010, the smart city concept was all about economic development, bringing in new money for cities,” he said. “Citizens were not thought of in the early days of smart cities. That mindset changed in 2010.” 

One city that has found a way to improve citizen experience while turning a profit is Moscow. Eldar Tuzmukhamedov, head of Moscow’s smart city lab, explained how his city combined 200 public services in one place to make the city more efficient while generating money for public coffers at the same time. “Smart measuring systems have changed the services Moscow can provide its citizens and has increased revenue for the city,” he said. “Having all vehicles connected, for example, allows us to tell when there is a free parking space in the city and we can tell citizens that to optimise their experience. It also allows us to know which roads are used the most and therefore we can work out which roads need clearing first when it snows. 

“From an economic standpoint we can use the same technology to keep a watch on services. For example, our CCTV cameras will take a picture of waste disposal units at the time they are supposed to be collected. If the bin men are not there when they are supposed to be, then we can fine the subcontractor for failing to meet their contract. This is not to control citizens but to increase service efficiency.” 

There is, of course, a fine line between increasing efficiency and creating a Orwellian nanny state. As Chris Pennell, practise leader at Ovum said: “Being connected does of course throw up security issues. There is a great opportunity do an unbelievable amount with data obtained from smart solutions, but there is a fine line and it is important to ensure citizen approval.”

Boyd Cohen’s Smart City Wheel was unveiled in 2012 and shows the different factors and smart services needed to make a smart city

In Moscow they have introduce an E-voting app to allow citizen’s to decide on local issues. They have also implemented an app to report damage to public property. The point is to drive up citizen engagement, so that they not only see the benefits but actively contribute towards them. 

Helskini has come up with an interesting concept to increase citizen engagement. As Veera Mustonen, head of Smart Kalastama explained: “We have to engage people in the concept of smart cities. We do this by allowing our citizen’s to design and develop their smart city. We have a panel of designers from all walks of life. It is very important to get the feedback of people using the solutions and technology.” 

The GDPR guidelines which come into play on May 25, 2018, will help ease security fears by outlining what can be done with smart data. As ETSI board member Kevin Dickerson said: “The most important test for smart city technology is whether or not citizen’s trust it. GDPR is all about how to use the data and how to keep it private.” 

Ghent city strategist Coenegrachts thinks that the GDPR ‘is an opportunity to take data back’. “Before the citizen was a user, in the future, the citizen will be an actor. That has to be the change in smart innovation over the next decade.” 

In terms of innovation, Coengrachts – among others – believes it is time to stop rolling out new tech and implement what we’ve already got. “There is no point talking about new technology developments, until we know how to best implement what we already have,” he said. “Fibre for example is an old technology, and yet, there are many cities in Europe that still don’t have fibre.” 

Microsoft UK business lead in IoT and Ai Alex Montgomery added: “The main thing now is building on what we already have. There is no point making new technology if we are not exploring what we already have.” In particular he wants to see smart technology used for ‘predictive purposes’. “Right now we have systems in place that react to data,” he said. “Data will come into its own when it is able to predict when streets light are going to need changing. The predictive capabilities that data can provide is what the future city is about.” 

Michael Mulquin, of the British Standards Institution, believes that the way to build on what we already have is to borrow the best bits from what has gone before. “There is no one plan for every city,” he continued. “So far, each city has done its own thing, which is great. It means future smart cities can pick and choose which part of existing smart cities to replicate and tailor it to there needs.”

However Nick Chrissos, chief technology officer at CityVerve, believes creating a ‘blueprint’ for smart cities is the future. “A successful model has to be sustainable, replicable and scalable,” he claimed. “What we want is to see a city completely replicate exactly how another smart city is set up, using the same vendors, the same services and products.”

What exactly a successful smart city blueprint would look like is hard to imagine. And perhaps Chrissos’s vision is an unrealistic one. After all, no two cities in history have been exactly the same. The ‘pick and choose method’ certainly inspires more flexibility, and in an ever-changing market it is the more exciting – and feasible – prospect. Ultimately however, the citizens of each city will determine if smartening up is a success or failure.

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