Smart cities are fantastic but do not exist

Smart cities are fantastic but do not exist

In a futurist blog the audience would like to hear about smart cities powered by artificial intelligence, robots and driverless cars. Obviously you would like me to envision happy citizens living in nice landscapes made of a balanced agreeable mix of green, steel and glasses. Unfortunately this does not exist yet and there’s a long way before we can get there.

We don’t even have a unique definition of smart cities. Somebody tried to explain smart cities as the result of approaching old problems (pollution, energy, security, transportation etc.…) with new technology solutions. Mainly based on intelligent devices that can communicate in real time and improve the quality of the environment. But that’s just part of the story. Another way to explain smart cities is considering them the place where the sharing economy meets the digital and physical world, simultaneously and sustainably. It’s a correct point of view but it misses the point that without a centralized direction, they will never be reality. Others simply criticize the idea by saying smart cities are just a new electoral theme created by city rules trying to show a benevolent and kind approach to citizens. In the meantime, big vendors (IBM, Cisco, Siemens etc.…) are lining up, so there’s a risk we start to look at smart cities as the new billionaire market of services and devices. In fact, forecasts from Frost & Sullivan suggest the global smart city market will be valued at $1.565 trillion in 2020. When, finally, skeptical observers begin to speak about privacy issues related to real time surveillance and GPS tracking of our smartphone… better to live in our current cities, with all their flaws.

Smart cities are fantastic but do not existSo let’s try to put some order in all those views. Smart cities are definitely about data gathering through intelligent devices. In fact, some 1.1 billion connected things are now in use in smart cities, according to Gartner research, rising to an estimated 9.7 billion by 2020. But the center is still the human, because technology is to service humans (and not vice versa). Urbanization is a monster. Inhabitants living in urban areas consume 75 per cent of the planet’s natural resource. The table attached just gives an idea of it, in terms of water consumption, CO2 emissions and garbage volumes produced. Assuming the growth of giant cities is an accepted macro-trend, their transformation in smart cities is incredibly complex. Municipalities don’t have the money to invest in transformative projects. They just might have the cash for some projects. So the real topic is the comparison between the speed of growth of cities and the adoption of smart intelligent projects. What is going to happen is relatively simple and depends upon the context:

  • Technology will go faster than urbanization: it will be possible where the cities are recent, because the infrastructure can be adapted more easily (for ex. Dubai); where there is a substratum of research, development and innovation (for ex. California and Japan); where central governments free of high public debt will have the resources to test and push technology (for ex. Nordic European countries, China and India).
  • Technology will go at the same speed of urbanization: municipalities will launch several projects in autonomy according to their local priorities and then they will begin to network between projects and areas / regions. This will probably impact the majority of the western European and American world and the larger cities of the African continent which can start without the burden of previous legacy infrastructure. I also expect countries with high public debt will fall in this category, but mainly because they won’t be affected by a huge growth of their towns (for ex. European Piigs).
  • Urbanization will go faster than technology adoption: I expect poor African countries, low innovative Asian countries and South America will find themselves in this situation, especially because the drain from rural areas to cities is incredibly dramatic.
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What kind of services then allow us to classify a city as smart? In simple words, all those based on input of data and adjustments of the results aimed at a best utilization of resources or improvement in safety. Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • The city of Yinchuan in China: if you jump on a bus, you may encounter facial recognition, which will be used to determine whether you have a bus permit. Simple and useful. In the meantime the local transportation company managed to fire large part of their controllers…
  • The city of Palo Alto in California: they have implemented a traffic system which updates (traffic lights) signal timings in real time based on current traffic demand, and help alleviate congestion and reduce delays.

Smart cities are fantastic but do not existThe examples and the tasks are many and come in different shapes and sizes: notifying if a bulb fails; monitors for water leaks, with the facility to shut off pipes automatically; or sensors to detect full rubbish bins etc. This is going to generate a huge quantity of information. According to Cisco, a city of 1 million, will generate 180 million gigabytes of data per day by 2019. And 1 million is not that big. If we look at the “hourly” growth of some big cities around the world, these amounts of data are not surprising. So if this is the speed of growth of large cities, what is the speed of adoption of intelligent technologies? Or, in other words, when we will really have a smart city? This is really a tricky question. According to Professor Musa, who tried to design a smart city roadmap, we know there are some steps:

  1. Study the community: why do we need a smart city?
  2. Develop a policy: what are the objectives and the strategies?
  3. Engage the citizens: how we are implementing?

Other articles break down the roadmap in additional pieces, like this Guardian’s post. That’s perfect on paper. But nobody can predict an ideal timing. In my opinion we will assist to many independent public and private projects, for at least another 10 to 15 years, and when the Internet of Things players will be able to agree on a standard of communication (between devices), separate projects will begin to merge into a unique body of services and we will call them smart cities.


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