Working together on smart cities

Ovum-DCE Smart Cities Europe 2012

The Lancaster, London 19-20 June 2012

You can find the Chirpstory for the event here.

In many ways the event revealed the broader problems with discussions around smart cities. There is the aspirational vision – cleaner, less-congested, less polluted and more prosperous cities – contrasted with the complex reality of current “smart” ICT projects, often mired in difficulties around business models, administrative jurisdiction, privacy and security issues and any number of other complex multi-stakeholder problems that crop-up when you try and integrate the physical and digital worlds; problems which go far beyond the scope of a simple technological fix.

The day started with an intoduction by Larry Hirst of the Digital City Exchange and Imperial College and Neelie Kroes of the European Commission, and a laying-out-of-issues by David Gann, the principle investigator of the Digital City Exchange.  The vision of the Digital City Exchange is to create the equivalent of a telephone exchange for a city’s data. This platform will then be accessed by citizens, businesses and city administrators to assist decision making, create products and services and inform city management. The key point about this exchange is that it seeks to be an exchange for all types of sectoral data: energy, transport, health, waste, environmental and any other areas you can think of to place a sensor. This goes far beyond the sectoral approach we see in many projects.

The imperative for such projects was underlined by Manel Sanromá, CIO of the City of Barcelona who pointed out that the human race is becoming steadily more urban, a process that has been going on for millennia. A result of this fact is that it is the quality of life that is available in the cities that is going to determine how we live in the future, because although you “can’t guarantee that France, the United Kingdom and the United States will be around in a thousand years, you can be virtually certain that Paris, London and New York will be”.

As such, cities themselves, through offices such mayors and other municipal offices that currently seem to be  undergoing a renaissance, are going to be the source of the impetus for moving to a smarter urban future.

Interesting themes that emerged from subequent sessions included:

The human element: the unpredictability of human nature and the risk of making any broad predictions about how the “human agent” will react when embedded in a smart city. A point raised in both the Transport session by panellists Sue Flack, Anders Roth and Jeremy Green, and by Nilay Shah in his “View from the Top” session as he tried to imagine what a smart city would look like using the tools of process engineering.

What is a smart city?: This is likely to differ from city to city, but what are the essential elements and what is the essential infrastructure needed before you can even think about calling yourself one?

Governance: we may use phrases such as “managing the smart city”, but more often the level of decision making is unclear, a hierarchy and decentralisation are often suggested but we still don’t know who to go to for a particular kind of decision.

Who will pay?: Something of an old warhorse in debates about almost any topic, but one that is particularly uncertain when business models are as contested as they are in the digital environment. A point made strongly by Allan Mayo of the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who said the assumption that it was all going to be paid for by advertising was naïve.

The smart cities agenda suffers from a certain amount of tension between a bottom-up versus top-down approach. The former is responsive, but limited in scope by barriers between sectors and the latter is slow to develop and ill-defined, but necessary if the full potential of the agenda is to be realised. Hopefully the Digital City Exchange will go some way to filling this lacunae.

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