Wednesday, January 16

What does “smart cities” really mean for “customers”?

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What does “smart cities” really mean for “customers”? Does it have any impact on their daily lives, do they have any say in its direction, does the term even mean anything to them? Martin Whybrow looks at the five areas where the theory and reality are currently poles apart.

The rambling and ill-defined topic of “smart cities” is much in vogue at present. It is possible to attend a related event more or less every week somewhere around the globe. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as “smart”? – there’s a rush within the overall enthusiasm for place branding to include the “smart” tag. However, if you were being polite, a lot of the noise can be described as aspirational at present.

There’s a long way to go in most cases before the customer – AKA the citizen – is truly engaged and impacted.

Bottom-up change

One of the clichés is that any smart city initiative should be “bottom up”, “community led”. This often equates to public meetings, online resources, focus groups and displays in public squares and city halls, to ask citizens to prioritise their community’s biggest challenges.

Some places have thrown themselves into this. Iceland is a flagship, starting with the crowdsourcing of its new constitution and with a majority of its citizens having been involved in the subsequent participation democracy, helping to direct budgetary and other decisions.

The knack to move from theory to reality is to do precisely what Iceland has achieved: demonstrate that actual decision-making is driven by customer interaction. Without this, there will always be apathy and scepticism meaning little or no proper engagement.

Use data but beware data

Data is at the heart of most things to do with smart cities and is meant to unlock an understanding of customers, thereby providing the bedrock on which future services can be based.

However, it is important to understand the potential bias within any data. Failure to do so might mean that it would have been better to do nothing.

A prime example is Boston in the US which started to use social media data to identify where it should focus its efforts to repair roads. The result was an appreciable deterioration of roads in poorer areas of the city. Residents here were less likely to be griping about the state of their roads than their more affluent neighbours, either because they were on social media less or because they had more important issues in their lives.

So much of the current talk about better use of data is just that, talk, with efforts still in the early stages to unlock it and break down the siloes. However, a good example of what can be achieved comes from travel app start-up, Citymapper.

At the outset, Citymapper had no intention of running its own buses but that”s what has now happened. It launched its app in London because of the openness of the data from Transport for London (TfL) and over time started to build up a lot of data of its own about where people wanted to move to and from. It then studied existing public transport links and identified gaps, resulting in its first bus and taxi-share schemes, no doubt with others to follow here and in the many other cities where it now operates.

What about those who most need change?

Bins that alert the council when they need to be emptied are all well and good, but what about those people in society who most need change in their lives?

The biggest challenge in many societies is health and social care but to date this remains underserved by smart city projects. There is some good work around improving homes for people with dementia and physical disabilities. There are also initiatives for better communications between patients and health professionals. And the concept of “flat pack” homes, potentially for temporary brownfield sites that are awaiting development, to alleviate homelessness looks to have a lot of potential. The iKozie “micro house” being trialled by Worcester City Council has gained a lot of attention of late.

Nevertheless, given the relative size for governments and local authorities of their health and social care budgets, there is not a correlation with the amount of smart cities activity in these areas at present.

Old processes and old mindsets

It was Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, who observed that residents now try to talk to governments using 21st century technology but governments listen with 20th century technology and respond with 19th century processes. This is arguable the biggest hurdle.

Local authorities are too prescriptive in their procurements, seeking precisely defined services rather than outcomes, so are largely closed to new ideas and innovators. Speaking at a recent event, the UK government’s secretary of state for communities and local government, Sajid Javid, said digitalisation in local government no longer “belonged in the basement”, with a need to move away from a default of “15 year-old contracts with the same old vendors”.

Too often it remains in the basement and, if anything, contracts are now more likely to end up with the big established companies as local authorities try to simplify their commissioning.

Of course, it is all very well for a UK government minister to preach to local government, but the relentless austerity means most councils are in crisis mode, barely able to stay afloat let alone find the people, resources and money to innovate.

There are some councils in the UK seeking to engage with start-ups, including Exeter City Council through Exeter Futures and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) within its recently unveiled Urban Challenge initiative.

But other countries are seemingly a fair way ahead. Oslo with its OsloAccelerator, for instance, is similar to the WMCA scheme but the difference is that it kicked off 18 months ago and has reduced 80 start-up applicants to an initial four winners, of which one has already won a contract from the city council.

Can services really be personalised?

This is probably where there is the biggest disconnect at present between theory and reality.

When a container ship arrives at a port, there will be complete knowledge of where each container has come from, what”s in it, who owns it and where it is heading. When a train pulls into a station, no rail operator around the globe will have any idea who is on its train.

That knowledge would allow, for instance, bespoke information and advice to be provided to each passenger as they disembark the train about their onward journeys. If there are delays on one route, others could be suggested, improving the service to the customer and reducing the disruption.

Similarly, if there is disruption, a better understanding of where passengers are seeking to move from and to can lead to better management of the situation. And where a group of passengers has been particularly inconvenienced, messages and offers could be tailored to them. “Sorry you were delayed yesterday, have a free coffee on us at these outlets…” etc.

For many providers, public authorities and customers, this sort of personalisation would be an ideal outcome. However, data protection and security is a difficult balancing act and, in the UK, the imminent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has the potential to make things harder still with its insistence that data given by a customer for one purpose cannot be used for any other, even within a single institution. This puts data ownership firmly with the consumer so there then needs to be a standard mechanism for that consumer to define how his or her data can be used, with tangible, useful personalised services surely the carrot that would persuade them to provide it.

So, there’s a long way to go before the hyperbole of smart cities is translated into a beneficial effect on the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of citizens but the potential is certainly there, even if it is typically still an early work in progress for most.


About Author

Martin has spent the bulk of his career writing about and consulting on technology and innovations that drove the banking sector. This has now springboarded a wider range of topics, which are his passion, particularly those with an environmental slant. He has set up Smarter Communities.Media to provide independent, in-depth reporting on initiatives from around the world that improve society. In addition, he is the first ever Green Party member on Kent County Council, was re-elected in May 2017, and undertake a range of committee and local case work. Martin's contact details are and +44 7727 185385.

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