Cities are best working together

Taking an integrated approach to the services cities provide will improve efficiencies, costs and residents’ quality of life, writes Mike Scott

For a city to be truly smart, it must be integrated. “One factor holding back the large-scale adoption of smarter cities is economies of scope. If water does not ‘talk’ to transport, which doesn’t ‘talk’ to buildings, then the city fails to take advantage of economies of scope between different infrastructure layers,” says Simon Giles, head of smart technology strategy at Accenture.

Integrated systems can increase value – measured in terms of economics, jobs, quality of life and carbon emissions reduction – for a city, says Molly Webb, head of smart technologies at The Climate Group. “The collation and analysis of data from different infrastructure layers can generate powerful insights about a city’s operations, giving decision-makers and planners a comprehensive and up-to-date image of the how their city is operating.”

However, currently cities are not geared up for cross-departmental thinking or for analysis of data from different sources, Mr Giles adds. “We need to fundamentally reassess how we master-plan cities,” he says. “At the moment, most cities’ economic planning departments are completely separate from their physical planning, for example. Cities don’t think of themselves as service providers at the moment, but that is what they are.”

Advances in technology will allow us to do things that in the past we could not have imagined

Integrated systems are enormously important, says Martin Curley of Intel Labs which, in conjunction with University College London and Imperial College London, has just launched the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities in the capital.

Smart cities, he says, will have “ambient intelligence platforms covering everything from energy sensors to pollution and noise sensors that will enable not just real-time resource optimisation , but also a kind of app store for the city so that all citizens have access to data and the ability to create new services”.

He adds: “Advances in technology will allow us to do things that in the past we could not have imagined. The current innovation trajectory of the city is one of continuous improvement; in future, we will have the opportunity to completely reimagine how cities work.”

Just as cities have been marketplaces for agricultural and then industrial products, cities now have an opportunity to be information marketplaces, says Mr Giles.

“We are not that far from software-enabled cities,” Mr Curley adds. “By making systems as open as possible, the only limit is the creativity of the people using the data.” One example of this is in Dublin, where the council created an app that allowed people to report and identify the location of potholes. This much quicker reporting of problems has led to a much faster response from the council in dealing with them.

“All cities are made up of a complex system of systems that are all inextricably linked,” says Anne Altman, general manager, global public sector, at IBM. The company’s Intelligent Operations Centre for Smarter Cities “recognises the behaviour of the city as a whole, thus providing more co-ordinated and timely decision-making based on deep insights into how each city system will react to a given situation”.

The IBM centre “will allow cities to use information and analytics to make smarter and more timely decisions, helping local leaders manage a spectrum of events, both planned and unplanned, such as deploying water maintenance crews to repair pumps before they break, alerting fire crews to broken fire hydrants at an emergency scene, or anticipating traffic congestion and preparing redirection scenarios”.

Understanding the outcome of policy decisions in the future is critical. IBM highlights the associations between public transport fares and high school graduation rates, obesity rates and CO2 emissions, average health and attractiveness of the city to businesses, population density and wellness, taxes/fees collected and electricity consumption, and farmers markets and economic growth.

The US city of Portland, for example, has found that its plans to cut carbon emissions, in part by encouraging people to walk or cycle rather than drive, will also help to cut obesity levels, leading to significant health benefits for the city as well as cutting carbon and congestion.

One potential problem is that the lion’s share of data about a city is not in the public sector; it is in private hands – information in cars, mobile phones and laptops, for example – and the private sector has little incentive to provide access to that data.

Mr Giles provides an example of how harnessing that data can work. In Singapore, frequent, very intense but very localised, rain storms can increase demand for taxis in one area, but not a few streets away where it remains dry. A system has been created that directs taxis to those areas where demand is most immediate.

“To do this, you need three different sorts of data – weather information, GPS data on the location of taxis and cellphone data that tells you how many people are in a particular area. Then, because this is something that taxi firms can profit from, you should be able to get them to pay for it,” he says.

We need to start thinking of cities as urban ecosystems, adds Eric Schellekens, a programme manager for climate change, innovation and urban planning at consultancy Arcadis. Something as simple as being able to prevent a water leak before it happens has knock-on benefits for transport, public safety, and the ability of children to get to school and their parents to get to work, for example. “The holistic approach is key,” Mr Schellekens concludes.