9 December, 2019

Imagine a city that’s easy and effortless to navigate. One that doesn’t waste water or energy, where the pavements and roads generate their own electricity and everything you need to live your life is close at hand and accessible just when you need it. On top of all that, this perfect city is sustainable and helping to save the planet.

Can Smart Cities reverse the impact of climate changeAt its heart, the idea of smart cites is the natural extrapolation of the Internet of Things. Sensors collect real time data from a hugely diverse range of sources which can be used through analysis and artificial intelligence to optimise the city’s operation. It could open up the possibility of right sizing the provision of public services to match actual need, managing transport infrastructure to smooth demand, and developing systems that learn from our habits and behaviours so the world around us can be adjusted to reduce its daily frictions and inefficiencies. Smart cities offer us a powerful weapon against climate change by minimising waste and promoting resource efficiency. There is a strong argument that technology like this can also help address some of the social challenges common to so many of our cities; division, isolation, ageing populations, anti-social behaviour, equality and access to essential services like healthcare.

As they say though, if you wanted to get there, you probably shouldn’t have started from here. So, the key question is how much of this utopian vision is actually achievable in the developed world without returning the planet to its factory settings and resetting the world clock back to Palaeozoic. Since you ask, that’s about half a billion years ago because not much was happening before that except old reruns of Midsomer Murders.

Starting from scratch offers the greatest opportunity to build smart cities. Not just because it’s hard to dig up our twisty Medieval streets without slowing city traffic below its already unimpressive average speed of 7mph (in London), or because once the flesh is peeled back it reveals a couple of hundred years of improvised surgical interventions and a dense mass of possibly still live, who knows, maybe redundant pipes and wires, but mainly because smart cities are about achieving a level of comprehensive interconnectedness, so a piecemeal approach may take as long as the Palaeozoic to accomplish.

If it’s hard to retrofit in old cites, how is it fairing where the constraints don’t exist? The EU runs a programme, The European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) which, despite its mouthful of a title and equally indigestible acronym, is a global leader in promoting smart city thinking. Cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Madrid, Barcelona and here in the UK, Milton Keynes are all experimenting with some aspects of smart city technology or programmes.

London is too, through new initiatives like the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) which is a collaborative vehicle, launched by London Councils to strengthen the boroughs’ ability to innovate, build common capability and scale-up digital innovation across London’s public services.

These projects have goals like managing traffic flows and facilitating vehicle sharing , saving energy by varying streetlighting to periods when it’s really needed, monitoring air quality so citizens have live data to inform decisions about outside activities. All improving the user experience through data discovery, collaboration and connectivity.

Dubai has probably the most ambitious smart city programme, launched in 2013 and based around the idea that all its citizens will be able to access public services through a smartphone. This relationship is essentially transactional, but its data will be the basis of developing predictive and responsive services in the future, matching demand in real time.

Like all utopian visons, it’s going to be hard to achieve all of this in the real world . For a start, our cities contain demographic groups that will be difficult to engage; unfortunately, these citizens - older people, the socially isolated or disconnected, minority ethnic groups for example - often have the most to gain from better public service provision. Then there is privacy, security, data protection and most people’s natural anxiety about sharing information about their behaviour and preferences with the state or large corporations. How should cities balance the ethical risks of data collection and exploitation against the improvements this can deliver for their citizens? The public challenges that Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs are receiving at the Toronto Waterfront smart city regeneration highlights what a complex issue this is going to be.

Then there is the time it takes to implement city wide changes, to regenerate and to develop new spaces. It makes the barriers seem very high. Kings Cross Central received planning consent in 2007, before the launch of the iPhone which changed the way consumers engage with everything. How can we build resilience into these processes? Should data standards be embedded at planning, so we have a base layer to build on?

Finally, there is the complexity of how smart cities can be implemented. Whether it will ever be possible to achieve a meaningful alignment amongst all of the public, private and corporate stakeholders who would need to come together to conceive and deliver a city wide project of this scale - with the assent and active participation of all of us citizens - seems hard to imagine.

We can’t do nothing. Our cities are often energy profligate, congested, inefficient and unpleasant places to live. Worse than that, they are damaging the environment and contributing to the climate crisis. Amongst others, CBRE’s work on placemaking and cities shows how they can be reengineered to address many of these challenges.

The technology is there, as is the will, we just need to address the remaining barriers. It surely can’t be too long before we look back with astonishment that in spite of all our access to digital technology the best we could come up with to manage traffic and pollution in our city was to charge people a few quid a day to drive into it.