The term ‘smart city’ means different things to different people. There is something close to a standard definition, from the BSI’s PAS180 Smart City Vocabulary document:
“‘Smart cities’ is a term denoting the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.”
Smart cities have been the subject of aggressive marketing from the major tech companies for some years. Their development has come to be seen by some as a success of technology marketing over citizen need. Something of a corporate takeover.
People have issues with the command-and-control format of many smart city programs, with their ‘control centres’ featuring giant screens and dashboards for some mastermind at the middle to monitor the city.
We see a similar discomfort with microchips under the skin. There’s the issue of security: this type of short-range wireless chip has been shown to be susceptible to hacking using widely available hardware.
But despite concerns, there are huge drivers to smart all our cities.
Smart cities and sustainability
Build smart cities means retrofitting technology, processes and partnerships to an existing, evolved organic environment. One model isn’t going to fit every city. Making it happen will be a process of negotiation, integration, iteration. And there will be lots of different parties involved: political leaders, civil servants, service providers, technology companies, health services, police forces, property owners and most important of all, the citizens themselves.
Brokering a framework that keeps all of these people at least relatively happy, while delivering on the promise of smart cities is no small task. It will only come through dialogue. But it’s a conversation we need to have. Because the promise of smarter cities is too great to ignore.
In the first instance there is simply lower costs, both financially and to the environment. There are lifestyle benefits: less traffic, quicker parking, more efficient public transport. Taking things a step further, there are advantages to planners: recognising a noise problem in one place might inform a change in planning to a new building nearby, perhaps requiring materials that absorb or deflect sound, or the planting of trees as a screen.
Future city technology: the challenges
Telefonica’s project in Santander has proven there is little money to be made in smart city hardware: the city rolled out 12,000 sensors funded by a relatively small EU1m from the EU. And the sum of the data collected from those sensors, just 5MB per day, similar to a single photo or MP3 file, suggests there is very little to be made in its carriage or storage.
The biggest challenges, and hence the biggest potential revenues, come in processing and presenting the data in a useful form. This is where Telefonica has focused its efforts and is looking to commercialise the learning from the Santander experiment. IBM too has recognised that this is where the value lies.
Why are smart cities important?
Despite these setbacks, smart cities have the potential to push forward our sustainability efforts and bring communities together. Ultimately, there is the prospect of properly understanding our cities and the interactions that make them live, so that we can make more informed decisions about their future, in local government, in corporations, and as individuals.