Today I am at a Future of Cities conference. I remember over a decade ago, IBM had a massive launch of their Smart”everything.” One of the big areas for them was Smart cities. According to the Smart City Council, “a Smart city is one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” A Smart city uses IoT (Internet of Things) sensors to collect a range of data. The purpose of this data is to improve livability and sustainability. Smart city technology can improve waste management, traffic, resource management, water and air quality, healthcare, and much more. Ideally, each Smart city focuses on addressing whatever needs are most pressing in their community.
In her TEDxSingapore talk “How we design and build a smart city and nation,” Cheong Koon Hean gives a useful metaphor for further understanding Smart cities. She explains how the city is a body. Buildings are muscles, greenery and parks are lungs, and roads are veins and arteries. The body has five senses which send data to our brain about what’s happening in the environment and how to adapt. Similarly, when we create a Smart city by adding a sensor layer to the city, we’re able to collect data and obtain insights that can help the city learn and adapt. The end goal is to develop smart applications for day-to-day living.
Let’s have a look at how Smart cities started and what’s happening with Smart cities now.
The first iteration of Smart cities required the government to be the catalyst and driver of change. There were pockets of innovation, but most of these projects were a feature of a major capital project. Unfortunately, these projects were light on the innovation factor. Features like being able to pay your water bill online were considered an innovation. Smart ticketing was used to create revenue without introducing any transformative technology to solve transportation issues. There wasn’t any deep interaction between the technology and the citizens, and the small amount of tech being deployed was not solving any serious problems.
Over the last decade, there have been a myriad of failed startups that went after Smart cities. Apparently it just wasn’t time for Smart cities yet.
So what has changed? Well, the engineering and real estate industry has begun to drive new innovations. Civil engineers are leading us toward the future. Technology continues to become more and more inexpensive and available. A sensor that cost $1000 a decade ago now costs about $50. Building software for the sensor and connecting it to other software systems is not only less expensive but also technically easier than it used to be. Companies like AT&T and Verizon have started to embark on Smart city innovation.
It looks like it is finally time for Smart cities.
With the advent of a connected constituent, private industry has started to deploy technology that sits on a fabric of Smart cities. Waze is an app that on the surface appears to be a mapping tool but behind the scenes is a traffic optimization tool. Products like Waze know more about traffic patterns and predicting the future needs of roads than any traffic system that a city currently has in place.
Private entities are shaping the future of their cities. Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a great example. They have a comprehensive innovation plan to improve Toronto in the areas of mobility, the public realm, buildings and housing, sustainability, and digital innovation. On the sustainability front, Sidewalk Labs is turning Toronto into a climate-positive city. Their sustainability innovation plan includes energy-efficient building designs, digital energy management tools, a clean energy system, an advanced power grid to support the main grid during peak times, a smart waste disposal chain, and green infrastructure and digital stormwater management systems. Sidewalk Labs’ other innovation plans are equally robust.
The shared economy has also played a role in Smart cities. With companies like Uber, Bird, and CitiBike, private industry has created solutions for transit. Airbnb has provided a solution for travel lodging.
With all these private industry innovations, there is a growing conflict between companies and government. Part of the problem here is the data: when innovation is being driven by private entities, governmental officials and researchers may lose access to data that they want to use to improve the city. Companies are often opposed to sharing customer information to improve city services. And consumers may have privacy concerns. However, a balance between privacy and data-driven innovation is possible. Citizens will ultimately decide these outcomes. This is a great example of how innovation should work: it is trial and error until you reach an optimal solution.
In many ways, Smart cities no longer are about the cities themselves but rather a connected fabric between technology and innovation. The focus here is on how the technology can actually be used to improve the lives of citizens. The city is not the center of innovation but rather a connector of innovation in service of the public good.
Last summer, I spent extensive time in Singapore with their government. They have an interesting approach on Smart city innovation. They essentially say “yes” and then figure out what works and what doesn’t work later. A bit of a “jump first and look later” approach. We are seeing a similar approach in cities like New York. The city is creating policies that introduce challenges for “old thinkers” but are massive opportunities for innovators. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
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