New world of fresh thinking

The real challenge facing cities may not simply be the pace of technological advance, but instead is in the way we see future urban living, writes Felicia Jackson

Cities are responsible for managing critical infrastructure, whether this is physical in terms of electricity, water, oil, gas, public transport and urban traffic, air quality and airports, or social, in terms of healthcare, education, leisure, social care and the working environment.

Yet Rob Watt, sales director of Hewlett Packard’s Public Sector Enterprise Business, says the challenge faced by any community can be broken down into three key areas – provision of effective services, reduction of cost and drive towards economic prosperity.

The real issue is how we choose to look at the challenge, separately or as part of a greater whole. Certainly, the cost of waste in our economic and environmental framework runs into the trillions and increasing efficiencies in the system is critical. So will the cost of smart city implementation be borne by technical or system efficiencies?

Annie Xu, senior vice president for smart cities at Schneider Electric, sees the challenge as one of integration. She says: “The breakthrough will come from the integrated management platform of all a city’s systems – energy, mobility, buildings, services, water.”

When you look at these issues, most cities already have operating systems in place. Long-term sustainability will be achieved by working on the most acute pain points, using existing, proven technology to increase efficiency and take waste out of the system.

Key innovation for smarter cities lies in integrating not just the technology but management and financing

Rashik Parmer, president of the IBM Academy of Technology, sees the challenge as one of perception and the need to change our thinking about how we approach it. He says: “The solution lies in looking at a multi-dimensional return on investment or where the value and cost lie in the system overall”.

In Glasgow, for example, 30 per cent of citizens live in fuel poverty, a problem the city found challenging to address effectively. Yet by changing the thinking to a drive towards affordable warmth, the city was able to use tax credits to develop a local district heating network with waste heat from power plants. Mr Parmer comments: “If you manage to work out the interconnection of where value can flow, you can unlock investment for a smarter city.”

Guy Battle, head of Deloitte’s sustainability practice, also believes that key innovation for smarter cities lies in integrating not just the technology but the management and financing of a city.

Buildings development is a prime example. Where the capital group has no budgetary connection to the operations and facilities management group, it is hard to make the right investment decisions; there needs to be a shift, at a city level, from a straightforward cost-benefit analysis to a life-cycle analysis. “We need to unlock the disconnect between the private sector, the public sector and the services they use,” he concludes.

Only by seeing cities as an inter-connected system, as a platform for innovation, can we effectively deploy the technologies necessary to solve the challenges of population, economic growth and climate change.