How Smart Should Smart Cities Be?

by · April 30, 2015

Recently some of my colleagues and I were on a call with a leading research organization discussing the smart city concept. The call lasted 30 minutes but left me with many thoughts that I decided to put down in a post. So here goes.

Today every city wants to be a smart city. But is this possible?  Do we really understand what it actually means to be a smart city? Some of us have got it right while some of us just join the band wagon, because it’s just the cool thing to do. Smart city initiatives don’t come in a “one size fits all” package. They are unique to different geographies, demographics and citizen-centric needs. We need to understand that it cannot come in a package solution with parking, garbage, smart meters, water, etc. all bundled into one.

It’s all about People

The smart city programs and applications should ALWAYS be about people. The objectives should never deviate from the need to change the lives of people. We  often get carried away with the coolest and newest technologies, be it IoT, Cloud, etc. But all of these put together have no value if it does not meet the needs of the people. I attended a smart city conference recently at which Simon Giles from Accenture said, “To date, the Smart Cities debate has been defined by the technologies we implement. The narrative is changing with a new found focus on human behavior and community needs. Technology should be an enabler not a goal in itself”.

I couldn’t agree with him more…..

There needs to be a vision

Smart city projects HAVE to have a vision. Without a vision, it is likely to simply be a white elephant. Smart cities cost money; money that is spent at the cost of  another need. As such leaders need to have a vision and invest their money and time in projects that have a clear Impact on Investment (IOI).

Have the right people to lead it

The new job role on the market is CDO – Chief Data Officer. Smart cities are data driven. We need people who are able to understand and read data. Data is able to highlight the situations today with predictions of what it will be tomorrow. We need people who can connect the dots between data, needs and solutions. The mistake many make is to overcrowd the initiatives with techies whose passion is to see their technology work. Believe me, I love technology and have admiration for techies, but technology working should equate to solving problems and understanding people, or else it is pointless. To resolve this, cities need human behavioral experts, economists, sociologists etc. on the team.

A single goal, but a multi-player approach

Smart city initiatives cannot be handled by one entity. Successful initiatives have consortium’s and governance councils that bring all stakeholders together. This is critical for success. There has to be ownership and a shared vision.

Feeding the Ecosystem

Successful smart city models are based on the simple logic of data transformation. But it cannot stop at the Knowledge Phase. We need to answer the question of  what this knowledge will do. Yes, it will enable new solutions; solutions that once implemented will resolve issues but will also start gathering new data sets. This new data will give new information, and new knowledge, and finally the new knowledge will infuse new solutions. And the cycle continues. It Should!

So what’s the best fit? City planners should continue a top down approach to use IT with intentions to optimize the flow of services to people through smart city initiatives. They also need to introduce bottom up approaches where citizens can generate and share data to improve the way in which their city works.

Smart city applications and solutions should encourage citizen participation. If things are to work well, there should be an ongoing dialog. The applications set up today should be able to resolve the problems of tomorrow. If the initiative is to evolve and grow, there has to be a participative system from which feedback is received. We cannot undermine the power of the people if given the right tools and access. This is where crowd sourcing apps are critical to collect feedback. This keeps the ecosystem fueled and everyone happy.

Coming to the end of this post, I realize that I have not touched much on tech buzz words like IoT, Cloud, M2M and Big Data which are normally very common with smart city write ups. While I totally advocate all of these and their value and need in smart cities, I would like to quote Simon again on the fact that these are only enablers. The great Greek Philosopher Plato once said “Necessity is the mother of all Inventions”. Technology is increasingly consumerised each day, and  adapting to that change is not a problem, but adapting to people’s needs is a perpetual challenge, so let’s start focusing on that.

Post By Indica Amarasinghe (18 Posts)

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