The Future for Smart Cities

With a global population explosion underway and increasing numbers of people migrating to urban centres, some argue that cities will have to get smarter or face collapse.  Which is why, according to industry analysts, the “smart city” will represent a $39.5bn (£25.1bn) marketplace by 2016.

Whole new cities, such as Songdo in South Korea, have already been constructed according to this template. Its buildings have automatic climate control and computerised access; its roads and water, waste and electricity systems are dense with electronic sensors to enable the city’s brain to track and respond to the movement of residents. But such places retain an eerie and half-finished feel to visitors – which perhaps shouldn’t be altogether surprising.

The business case for creating smart city solutions can be tough to prove, according to Mischa Dohler, professor of wireless communications at King’s College London.  “We struggle quite a lot coming up with first order business cases when it comes to Smart Cities,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to get this going and it takes a lot of capital and cities are strapped [for cash].”

For new initiatives to thrive, it is vital for cities to open up the data they are collecting, said Dan Byles, a former MP and V-P corporate development at Living PlanIT, speaking here at a round table brought together by the Guardian newspaper.  “Cities need to put this data on to an accessible platform for app developers, who can then create smart applications from that data”. 

For some, the impetus for creating smart city innovation has to come from the private sector.  But working with businesses that are entrenched in their ways is a huge challenge, as Bill Clee, chief executive and founder of Asset Mapping, which enables mapping of assets in the built environment, has found: “You are trying to change not just people’s perspective on technology but how businesses work,” he said. “We have to disrupt both technology and business knowledge,” he added. 

Further, there is a ticking time-bomb of arguments about surveillance and privacy that will dwarf any previous conversations about Facebook or even, perhaps, government intelligence agencies scanning our email. Unavoidable advertising spam everywhere you go is just the most obvious potential annoyance. (There have already been “smart billboards” that recognised Minis driving past and said hello to them.)  

Too, there is potentially an issue with open-data initiatives such as those currently underway in Bristol and Manchester, which is making publicly available the data it holds about city parking, procurement and planning, public toilets and the fire service.  But how safe is open data?  It has already been demonstrated, for instance, that the openly accessible data of London’s cycle-hire scheme can be used to track individual cyclists. “There is the potential to see it all as Big Brother,” Mike Rawlinson of consultancy City ID, says. “If you’re releasing data and people are reusing it, under what purpose and authorship are they doing so?”  The argument therefore goes that there urgently needs to be a “reframed social contract”.

At “Re.Work Future Cities Summit” in London’s Docklands many of the speakers took care to denigrate the idea of the smart city itself, as though it was a once-fashionable buzzphrase that had outlived its usefulness. “The smart city was the wrong idea pitched in the wrong way to the wrong people,” suggested Dan Hill, of urban innovators the Future Cities Catapult. “It never answered the question: ‘How is it tangibly, materially going to affect the way people live, work, and play?’” 

As cited earlier in this blog there are inevitably worries about the Orwellian nature of putting sensors everywhere to record people’s behaviour, and some of the panellists were concerned about how this information would be used. “I’m slightly alarmed about what is going to happen with this data once it’s out there,” said Ruth Reed, director of Green Planning Studio. “There has to be some kind of control over where all this data is going and who is exploiting it,” she added.

Too, a leading internet security researcher has warned that the Smart Cities of the future could be more vulnerable to hackers than the computers and smartphones of today.  Cesar Cerrudo, chief technology officer at security research firm IOActive Labs, warned that city authorities and governments that are the customers of technology firms aren’t testing the security of the systems they buy. “They do a lot of tests for functionality on the system and devices, but they don’t do any security testing. So, basically, they are trusting the vendors,” he said.

Speaking at the RSA security conference in San Francisco in April, Cerrudo said many firms selling smart systems were failing to build in effective security, such as encryption – a significant problem when so many services transmitted their data wirelessly. “All the data goes over the air. If you don’t have a good encryption, anyone can capture the data over the air and compromise security,” he said.

Questions, questions - as we yet again turn to technology to get us out of a mess.  The truth is our existing cities were never designed or intended to handle many of today’s givens - and certainly not on anything like this scale.  So, who will coordinate smart city technology given that it crosses so many different areas, from roads to social care and from big data to the Internet of Things?  How will this all be paid for? And will these moves get the support of citizens?  

For the near-term at least, the sites of true “smart city creativity” arguably remain the planet’s established metropolises such as London, New York, Barcelona and San Francisco. Indeed, many people think London is the smartest city of them all just now - Duncan Wilson of Intel calls it a “living lab” for tech experiments.

Richard Wheeler Associates ( works with a core client base in Mobile Software, cleantech, cyber security and tech startups.