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 the “smart city” is already a fast booming marketplace comprising a vast array of complex elements.

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.  “Cities need to put this data on to an accessible platform for app developers, who can then create smart applications from that data”. 

Although the disruption of Covid-19 may temporarily curtail development plans, the long term trajectory is positive. The global economic slowdown will impact smart cities both negatively and positively. Some projects have already seen a slowdown, and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs cited the pandemic as the main reason for shelving their ambitious Toronto smart city plan. However, analysts have noted that the project faced considerable local opposition over privacy concerns.

Indeed, fears that smart cities could lead to unchecked surveillance by government and corporate actors can often slow or prevent the application of certain population monitoring technologies. Yet it is conceivable that public concerns about data collection could be less pronounced following the current health crisis, providing more regulatory space for public and private actors to experiment with profitable smart city models that might have otherwise been considered too invasive.

Furthermore, experts in the field see parallels with the 2008 global financial crisis, which helped to propel the first global wave of smart city projects. The economic crash and resultant government budget shortfalls created an impetus for cities to collaborate with technology firms to address urban problems and generate new sources of revenue. A Covid-19 recession could result in similar dynamics, with more public-private partnerships or entirely private sector-driven initiatives entering the space.

For others, 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 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”.

Ruth Reed, director of Green Planning Studio, agrees: “I’m slightly alarmed about what is going to happen with this data once it’s out there. There has to be some kind of control over where all this data is going and who is exploiting it.”

Further, 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.” 

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 technology-led client base in AI & Data Analytics, cleantech, cyber security and tech startups

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