Are our cities getting any smarter?

Smart cities have been a topic of discussion and the centre of investments for over a decade. The smart-city ICT infrastructure market in EMEA is expected to reach £219 billion by 2021, this is serious. The vision has been to replace the legacy systems used to manage a city (or council) with newer, more modern and more efficient versions. Through this replacement and update process officials expected to make huge savings and catch-up with all the trends that promise will change the spaces we live in. Promises closer to the vision of engineers and futurists. Needless to say this has not been the case for most EU cities where issues relating to pollution, mobility and inclusion are still going strong.

What is going wrong with our smart-city strategies?

So, the question remains: Why is it that most european cities have only turned into smartass instead of smart? The reason lies in Hollywood. Business plans and strategic objectives of related investments have been envisioning flying cars, cyborgs and teleportation. Sadly, we have been trying to replicate the cities we have seen in Blade Runner and Star Wars. Exaggeration aside, European cities have been investing heavily into infrastructure that does not necessarily relate to useful citizen-centric services.

A city can only be as smart as the sum of its citizens. Investments should not be done blindly in infrastructure alone. When cities decide on their spending, they need to take into account the real people living in them and of course the real needs these people have. The IQ of a city should not be measured in terms of the trending technologies it has adopted. Rather, it should be measured as a function of citizen-satisfaction: how well are citizen needs covered, how much have cities contributed in solving daily issues, how happy are we to live in a specific neighbourhood.

How can the approach towards the vision of a smart city be revised?

A city can become smarter only if we engage citizens living in it. We need to ask them continuously and create a feedback loop after the introduction of any policy. Indifference in politics across all countries in Europe is at an all time high. A well known statistic verifies this: in 2013, 67.9 % of voters cast their vote in national elections throughout the EU, 10 percentage points less than in 1990 according to Eurostat. Obviously this needs fixing.

Cities can fight back by introducing 3+1 things in their smart-city strategy:

  1. Use modern consultation tools to start the discussion with citizens. Ask them about everything, most importantly facilitate a discussion. Use social media instead of silo-systems because they simply work better. People are used discussing things on twitter, not the city website. There is no better sensor of problems and local information than the citizen himself. Today we are experiencing a paradox: cities designing better places to live in without asking those that will benefit from the changes.
  2. Communicate everything planned for the city as frequently as possible and measure the response of people. 2 out of 3 UK citizens consider transparency as the main thing they expect from their local council. Cities should tell us where the money is being spent and why (even better if this is the result of one of the consultations). Most importantly, cities should make sure the services they offer are explained in terms of a KPI that people can relate to. Nobody understands levels of NO2 as measured from the brand-new multi-million city-wide sensor-network. Everybody will love though, information about the best neighbourhood to walk your kid in or the best place to go jogging.
  3. Facilitate engagement with transactional services that people understand and relate to. Don’t start your smart-city strategy by introducing mega-projects. Give people better access to simple services that normally take ages to complete: facilitate payments, crowdfund local causes or simply tell them how everybody can save money by not missing their next doctor’s appointment at the council. Finding solutions to problems that a city already has will create a much greater effect in the lives of people than a driverless-car. When such basics become commodities then advanced technologies like IoT will find their place in our lives effortlessly.
  4. The bonus point: Measure everything. Analytics is becoming a commodity for various industries but cities sadly have fallen behind. Cities should trust their data to make data-driven decisions, decide on their next investment, their next infrastructure update. Ourselves as citizens should have access to filtered versions of this data as well. Also, it is worth noting that cities are not here to solve all problems. They should certainly though facilitate the conversation between experts in order for them to detect and solve the issues efficiently. Open data is the optimum way to do this.

In engineering a feedback loop is typically controlled by some metric through which we get ourselves to an optimum solution. In my view this metric for cities is fairly obvious: the quality of our lives.

PS: I would love to live in Coruscant of Star Wars eitherway.