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Why smart cities don’t have to be urban vanity projects.
Smart city projects such as Manchester’s CityVerve smart city demonstrator and Milton Keynes’s Ideation Platform often attempt to put peoples’ needs at the forefront by encouraging citizen engagement, and empower them to submit, share and collaborate on sustainability projects. Indeed, the latter won the Smart City Award in 2017. But such schemes can still tend to focus more on the flashy technology than serving people.
Richard Godfrey, Managing Director of Syncity, couldn’t agree more. Quite apart from the numerous lists of national and global smart city rankings, he argues that currently there is no such thing as an actual smart city anywhere in the world. Of course, there are some successful urban smart projects in cities as diverse as Singapore, Toronto or Nairobi, but many, he claims, don’t fully understand the use-cases and are more concerned with showcasing cutting-edge IoT technology.
Godfrey is no Luddite – his background is in digital transformation, AI, IoT and big data, and he worked for more than seven years for Peterborough City Council (Smart City of the Year 2015), first as Strategy, Infrastructure and Programme Manager, then as Assistant Director and lead of Digital City Peterborough.
His lightbulb moment, he says, was when reading about green field smart city projects, where completely new settlements are built from the bottom up with modern technology baked into them. “A smart solution is only as good as its ability to solve specific human problems,” he points out. “But how can you address problems without the people who are to have them?
“In order to make these projects more relevant and meaningful, we should first cease to have technology for a starting point and focus on the existing and unique problems of individual cities instead. The second step should be about assessing and quantifying the problem with the help of advanced technological tools, in order to identify the kind of AI, IoT or even non-technological solutions that can provide a remedy to the concrete problems that have been identified.”
In smart city projects you also need the right mix of players on the team to be successful. Normally, these teams are made up of technological experts, representatives of the local council, and maybe one or two citizens. What is missing from them is a diverse non-technological staff including urban planners, architects and even landscape architects, as well as researchers and scientists. He’d like to see technology companies employing these types of roles or at least partnering with these types of companies. It’s also paramount that experts from the public and charity sectors are also invited to the conferences, workshops and online discussions where smart city ideas are shaped.
The current length of projects is another stumbling block: the return-on-investment of smart city projects is inherently slow, and therefore two-year government-funded project cycles with big intervals between them are far from ideal. Long-term projects allow time for technological investments to filter down to beneficiaries at the end of value chains.
For example, the benefits of technological solutions improving air quality are reaped by people in the first place, whose life quality will improve through breathing in cleaner air. However, down at the end of the line it’s local healthcare facilities and the NHS who will have to spend less on the treatment of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Therefore, a kind of circular or drip-down approach is needed when assessing the RoI of smart city projects as improvements may be many years in the making.
There is no point throwing flashy state-of-the-art technology at problems which can be sorted out by simple or even non-tech solutions: putting down tactile paving slabs is a strictly non-technological way of assisting blind or partially blind people to get around in cities, for example, but it goes a long way. Equally, simple sensors and smartphones could provide a breakthrough in solving the labour shortage problem in social care once the necessary legislative changes have been made to regulate how responsibility can be shared between human workforce and technology.
Our cities are inarguably turning increasingly smart. Most of them are not the “purpose-built” kind that spring up from nowhere, and will need customised retrofitting driven by the specific needs and difficulties of their citizens. The city with the second-fastest commuting time in the UK won’t need any smart solutions that improve traffic flow, for example. It’s not enough to be smart – you also need to be clever.
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