Smart City projects need long term vision and to serve the people personally

By Dan Swinhoe, IDG Connect, 19 June 2017

Smart City projects need long term vision and to serve the people personally

Depending on which expert, analyst, or guidebook you read, there are more than 100 different definition of what constitutes a “Smart City” is and what it should do.

Is it about local government services all being available online? Is it about implementing sensors for things such as lighting, parking, and pollution across a large area? Is it about making data available so third parties can create new services? All of the above? None of these?

“I tend to talk about creating friction-free lives for citizens,” says Andrew Till, Vice President, Technology, Partnerships & New Solutions at Harman Connected Services. “Because if you start a smart city definition talking about technology, you’ve got it wrong.”

“A smart city is one that removes the tension and stress from the lives of the citizens that are in it with the ambition that you then make the city a delightful place to live. You make people who are much more productive and focused so it becomes a much more profitable city, and it’s one that will probably be very innovative very entrepreneurial, very creative, and contribute as much as possible back to the place where I live.”


Approaching a smart city project

However, getting buy-in for long term investments that can be largely centred around largely invisible things such as data and sensors can be difficult because things like that don’t get you elected.

“Rather than just saying; “We’re going to build a smart city.” you’ve got to have some vision of the role of the city in your country, and the world stage; what one thing are you going to be world class at so we can attract the investment that’s going to help pay for a lot of this? Just saying we’re going to become a smart city doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

Till uses Las Vegas’ drive to become a major testbed for autonomous vehicles as an example of a city picking one smart city theme and remaining focused on it.

But even once people are on board with an idea, the exponential pace of technology growth is often at odds with the slow-moving bureaucracy of local government and change within cities. Which can create problems if projects or initiatives aren’t designed to be far-reaching.

“If you hold true that autonomous vehicles will be on the road in 10-15 years’ time, and you’re planning a new city development, do you plan for the city owning only autonomous vehicles in some of the new areas, because therefore you don’t have to plan for parking. As soon as you take that out, the amount of space you can re-purpose is tremendous.”

“If I’m developing for 10, 15, 20 year horizons, I have to try and almost imagine what will be the big-ticket changes in 20 years’ time and work backwards and say; “How do I design initiatives to scale and migrate to these areas” rather than say; “Ooh that’s some really cool technology, let’s go implement it because it’s fun to do it.””


Beyond the smart city to the AI city

We still might be in the early days of Smart Cities where most of the focus is on simply making data accessible and implementing IoT solutions, but given the continual improvements of Artificial Intelligence, a future where cities are run almost entirely autonomously may not be that far off.

“There’s no city out there saying “we’re going to embrace Artificial Intelligence to help us pioneer the next generation of industry and service.””

On which city will be the first to go all-in and proclaim itself the world’s first AI city, Till suspects it will likely be “a city that’s been built in the last 50 years, somewhere in Asia”, purely because older cities such as London are so complex, introducing city-wide projects can be so difficult and time consuming.

Given the endless headlines about AI either taking everyone’s jobs or destroying the world, or taking our jobs and then destroying the world, Till understands there may be many people resistant to such a concept.

“When I talk about the role of AI in cities, the initial reaction will be “this is scary, AI is going to put me out of a job.”

“But if we look at every technology cycle, it’s created more jobs. It creates new industries that didn’t exist before, and those industries are normally more profitable for people to work in, they grow and scale faster, and they normally replace manual labour with intellectual labour, which is more rewarding.”

“I think at some point we’ll move beyond the worry about bringing AI technology in – people jumping to the concern about jobs and what we lose – to actually this is a massive differentiation. It’s a great opportunity to push forwards and move towards where industry is going rather than focus on where it’s been.”

Till sees the real benefit of AI in cities – and the thing that will get people on board – is the personal factor.

“All the benefits [of smart cities] are very abstract until they actually help you. Big society is not something that resonates generally with people because human beings by nature, we put ourselves first. But if you’re getting something back from that and it’s very personal, you take away a lot of the fear, a lot of the rejection.”

“An AI city would be trying to predict at a personal level, how to give you the best experience on any given day. Its primary function would be to remove friction so that you’re able to be as productive as creative and contribute more than would ordinarily be the case. Then you start to get a very different perspective of what that means to people.”

Also read:
Smart Kigali: An IoT project to transform Rwanda
What can other cities learn from Singapore’s extensive tech initiatives?
Nokia helps advance Bristol’s smart city test bed
Smart cities and the internet of (connected) things
Can South Africa deliver on its smart city dreams?