Digital infrastructureSmart CitiesSmarter cities today, not smart cities tomorrow

Smarter cities today, not smart cities tomorrow

Matt Bird, General Manager at InLInkUK talks about investment and progress of smarter cities and how different they are from smart cities

It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly urbanised world, but it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of this shift in how humanity lives its day to day life. Governments around the world are now facing up to the fundamental challenge of urbanisation: how to successfully accommodate ever more people into urban areas which are physically constrained by geography or infrastructure while working within cultural factors such as the need to protect local character and a broader dislike of change.

For many years the tech sector has presented the ‘smart city’ as a panacea for this problem, but it can be incredibly difficult to show the average person how the use of technology can improve even the most mundane aspects of their daily lives.

Avoiding the distraction of ‘smart’

Too often smart city solutions set high expectations that are almost never met. Sometimes this is due to promotional material which moves too far ahead of the actual technology: videos of flying cars without sound, masking how noisy they are in reality, are a great example of this. More often, however, it is down to a failure to demonstrate that making a city smarter is about incremental change.

A smart city solution is too often like a video showing a clear piece of glass being used as a phone or to control the lights or blinds in a home. Which is to say, it’s a solution without a meaningful problem, which at best will inspire future innovations and at worst can be a costly distraction diverting finite funds and resources from areas that will actually improve people’s daily lives. Consider, for instance, the millions spent on the highly impractical hyperloop concept – millions which could have been spent improving local business services or expanding train networks.

Smarter city solutions, by contrast, are tangible and driven by a desire to solve basic problems that hold back our daily lives. Here we see cameras being used to speed up a traffic light change in response to a higher than usual number of waiting pedestrians; sensors being included in public bins so that collection teams can be directed to where they are most needed, avoiding unnecessary disruption; and parking space occupancy sensors feeding into apps and public displays, eliminating the congestion caused by people looking for somewhere to park.

This is why, in responding to the Mayor of London’s Smart London Plan Listening Exercise last year, InLinkUK recommended that we move from promising ‘smart cities’ to instead talking about ‘smarter cities’. Thinking in terms of smarter cities can be an opportunity to move away from an abstract, utopian, and largely unachievable vision conjured by the term ‘smart city’ and instead focus on what can be done in the near term.

Setting down the right path

For me, this process must begin with building up the connectivity capacity within cities, including 5G, fibre internet, and public Wi-Fi. One thing that all smart cities initiatives have in common is that they rely on communication. There is little point in seeking to improve services by installing sensors in the built environment, or establishing systems which can automatically make decisions on the basis of that data, if the two cannot pass data to one another.

Basic connectivity won’t necessarily do here. One of the driving technological factors behind the emerging potential to make our cities smarter is the arrival of an era of big data – the idea that very large datasets, when analysed with the right tools, can provide better, more useful insight than tightly controlled inputs. Big data, however, demands high bandwidth, low latency, and excellent reliability. That’s why I would also like to see local government take the initiative by establishing minimum service levels for both publicly- and privately-run connectivity offerings. The presence of high quality connectivity options today will engender the innovative solutions that will benefit communities in the future.

Finally, ensuring that the infrastructure we use as the foundation for our efforts towards smarter cities is as open as possible to all users will help set an important standard. Above all, industry and government must together ensure that the initiatives we put into place are people-centric, make a net-positive contribution to the community, and don’t fall into the trap of technology for technology’s sake. We can enshrine this principle by making sure that the connectivity we are putting into place is available to citizens as well as businesses.

Driving up standards in connectivity and focusing on smarter, incremental improvements to services over silver bullet ‘smart city’ solutions that will never fully deliver on their high expectations might not in themselves prepare our cities for the huge growth and change they will undergo in coming decades. They will, however, help create the right conditions for the kind of innovation that will deliver real improvements to every aspect of our daily lives.

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