Being Smart About Smart Cities

The Great Game of Smart Cities

Is there really anything left to be said about Smart Cities? Everyone in the game knows the rules, they know the challenges and they can see the prize. Experts and professionals seem to straddle being both inside and outside the game simultaneously - sometimes they are players on the field selling solutions and the next minute they’re commentators looking on and remarking on the impossibility of the game itself.

Most interested parties now seem to agree that the term itself is increasingly an obstacle to understanding and that it should be broken down into its constituent parts, Smart initiatives or Smart projects. 1

There is one group that still doesn’t feature much in the discussion. They haven’t necessarily been excluded but neither have they really shown much interest. That group is of course citizens themselves. The very people for whom all this amazing integrated technology is ultimately meant to be a benefit. People rarely make a claim or a demand for a smart city initiative; there is no global Smart City movement. We have plenty of data on how people behave, that seems to be the very essence of what drives most Smart City solutions, but what about data on what it is that people want or what kind of cities they want to live in? There are plenty of discussions and much political engagement on topics that are either immediately local to the city-dweller or that have a global impact such as climate change. And that’s strange because the Smart Cities agenda has the capacity to address both of those type of issues directly.

Sometimes the discussion reaches the political sphere, most prominently in the case of India, where Prime Minister Modi has set off his “100 Smart Cities” initiative, and where - ironically - despite the Smart City agenda reaching public discourse, many specialists feel that the term Smart Cities isn’t helpful, or perhaps more specifically the policy doesn’t quite cover the vast scale of India’s urbanisation need.2

The Size of The Prize

But it seems that the term is here to stay. This is partly because many cities are using ‘Smart City’ as a branding tool and so it’s generating a bigger discussion, but there is another significant reason for its prevalence; the brand banner Smart Cities covers a multitude of industry sectors; the scale of the market is therefore considerable.

Smart grids, Smart energy, Smart mobility, Smart data - all areas of substantial business opportunity in their own right, and perhaps most significantly the accelerating developments within the Internet of Things (50bn connected devices by 2050) mean that the term has increasing resonance. The UK Government conservatively estimates that Smart City solutions and services will represent a global market of £200bn 3 by 2020 and indeed developments within the Internet of Things project still higher revenues with market opportunities at £11trillion market value by 2050. The size of the prize demonstrates clearly that it is at the frontline of cities that the challenges and opportunities presented by rapid technological growth are felt most sharply.

Delivering At Scale

It’s worth stating then that the phenomenon is important. But there is a real and present challenge which much of this technological opportunity is trying to address beyond simple efficiency savings. The scale of the challenges implicit within forecasted global urbanisation trends is colossal, and therefore the need to develop a response at scale is paramount. Take the following figures:

It’s estimated by McKinsey Global Institute - meaning that it must be at once alarmist and true - that the global infrastructure investment requirement between now and 2030 is $57 trillion. That’s more than the estimated value of today’s total worldwide infrastructure. So basically the world needs to increase its investment in infrastructure by 60 per cent over the next 18 years. McKinsey then highlight that there is a possible $1trillion worth of savings from this global figure to be made through efficiencies. Most of which will quite simply be made through integrated technology solutions and our ability to implement at scale.

Demand for urban services is going to increase at such a pace that the size of the prize is exercising the minds of the imaginative and entrepreneurial. Those who have viewed the Smart Cities forecast recognise that these savings represent spending on their own services. Singapore Smart City

Singapore, the Smartest City in town?

Defining the Smart Continuum

It is important to make a distinction within Smart City solutions between those initiatives that are concerned with energy efficiency (including transport mobility, waste management etc.) and those which are concerned with digital connectivity and transparency. Both are driven by sensor technology and improved data management possibilities, however they address two different concerns of the citizen. One end of the continuum is broadly about upgrading infrastructure and the other end is about governance (perhaps a little more Smart Citizens than it is Smart Cities.) We could argue that the first issue of energy efficiency is of the greatest and most pressing importance for cities and the planet. Transparency and democratic engagement are paramount to the future of city life but this is where the holistic Smart approach starts to become too much for cities to handle. Implementing integrated energy management systems presents enough challenges for our current outmoded systems of governance. Better to chunk them into their distinct political categories.

Businesses Knows the Benefits

People are clearly concerned about energy efficiency as this regular UK government omnibus shows. And both home-owners and businesses know that there are broader benefits as this campaign for just one Smart initiative shows; Smart Energy GB, the national campaign for Smart Metering, highlights the opportunity to “save £6 billion overall over the next 20 years with Smart Meters. It’ll cost about £11 billion to get the country up and running on smart meters, and total benefits are expected to be around £17 billion.” Business is encouraged to join the programme. And of course in a market of that scale it would be madness not to.4

The Order of Things

Here is where we confront the first set of hurdles: the market isn’t always ready for these services, at least there doesn’t appear to be demand or a direct government buyer, and worse, at a more general level in society, business is viewed with suspicion. Most big tech providers have recognised the opportunity and indeed they’ve been thinking about it for a while. Smart Cities guru Boyd Cohen has highlighted and categorised the three generations of Smart Cities using the following chronology:

Smart Cities 1.0 (Technology led)
Smart Cities 2.0 (Tech enabled and city-led)
Smart Cities 3.0 (Tech and citizens led)

It’s inevitable that a lot of the discussion is still being led by the tech providers, they were first-movers and yes there’s a profit incentive (generally a useful force for generating ideas and spurring thought!) Unfortunately this profit incentive has often meant that they have been disqualified from the discussion on grounds of self-interest, a view expressed in Paul Mason’s recent ‘big-bad-business’ Guardian article on the matter. Mason suggests that there is an ‘obligatory nod’ towards community involvement but his gripe here is really about the data and governance issues which result from Smart City discussions, not really about smarter energy and utilities. In fact, Mason’s latest book Post-Capitalism concludes by making an impassioned plea for a wholesale upgrade of the grid and energy systems at a national level. Champions are everywhere but do not recognise themselves as such - a good reason perhaps to break down the Smart Cities metaphor a little more.

The truth of ‘big-business interest’ is of course much more complex. In my experience there are always champions inside every company and workplace, people who are seeking to improve profits but who are also motivated by purpose. They are usually evangelists inside their own organisations helping to move their sometimes large corporate hierarchies forward by presenting new ideas, and thinking beyond the immediate business cycle towards longer-term solutions. But another reason for not dismissing the profit-motive as a driver of change must be that in developing new markets and new products businesses have to be aware of major trends and view them as market opportunities. This is especially the case in the tech-provider world where there is a lot of good forecasting and analysis on the major trends and challenges we face in relation to the shared commons. In many instances this has meant that in the Smart City agenda business has had foresight beyond the political cycle. This is an indictment of politics, not of business.

Right now at the start of the 21st century we stand at a pivotal moment in the economic cycle. New forms of production are poised ready to move us into a new economic order, new technology appears rapidly and our current economic paradigm struggles to adjust. The zero-marginal cost of production is disrupting every business sector and yet many of things that need the most urgent reform do not seem to be changing quickly enough. In the UK the energy demand and transport needs in our cities are largely a reflection of our urban planning systems of 60 years ago and often navigating through 19th century infrastructure. As a result people ask what government is for if it cannot meet these challenges. But how can government respond when really what is required to meet the scale of challenge is, in effect, an entire system upgrade?

Politics and the language of public goods, surrounded by the media scrum, is clearly not structured to have conversations about wholesale infrastructure change. The public debate is only designed for piecemeal trade-offs on individual issues.

Profit Plus Purpose

This ultimately places the impetus with business. But the huge challenge is that business confronts so much public distrust in its motives. Post-2008 and the great financial crisis, suspicion of profiteering is high. Banks weren’t the only organisations blamed for the crash, or for the Libor scandal; everyone took a reputational hit. Figures from YouGov and Edelman show that levels of distrust in all business are high, while politicians remain faithful. But what can be done about it? It may be that business will have to move the discussion forward again once more and outline the benefits of Smart City initiatives to city-dwellers as much as to city officials. They will have to take the lead because the political cycle is short and increasingly restricted. But the challenge will not simply be to arrive with their own solutions already at hand. Instead leadership will take the form of inviting cities and citizens to define the broader political goals they have, to help cities set the question, to take stock and return with answers, and ultimately, to move to Cohen’s Smart Cities 3.0 and instigate the conversation.

And the answers can come from anywhere. Ian Goldin of Oxford Martin School and ex-World Bank Vice-President diagnoses a certain kind of systemic risk that is now written into our system of globalisation. One of his proposed solutions is that we should develop ‘coalitions of the willing’ in order to be more effective in the face of the grand challenges we face. We don’t need everyone to make change happen, just those that have influence and are willing to engage.

It is not without historical precedent that enterprise should demand a better future and spur the political imagination. Henry Ford effectively changed the course of economic history with a vision of the future that was not based on any initial public or government vision, and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that with greater government and civic involvement we might have ended up closer to the electric car than the combustion engine and ultimately a better place. Contemporary visionary business leaders such as Elon Musk have a clear understanding of the role of business in addressing societal and political challenges and as such, he has set off to resolve the challenges we face as a result of Ford’s legacy.5

What does a 21st Century Citizen Want?

It may be that Smart Cities only come of age when their technology is seen as useful by the citizen, just as the iPhone generated immediate benefits for the user, our attitude to technology and its uses stimulate active demand when they become tangible and easy to use. We can see this effect as we get closer to Smart Cities 3.0 and smart devices begin to make experiential changes in our lives. Nest thermostats may be an instance of this phenomenon, where the tech makes savings and efficiency gains by effectively removing the need for any human engagement with the device.

There will be broader savings and efficiencies generated by these technologies, and benefits to the individual will be key. But, the more we perceive them as fitting with a shared societal wide purpose, the more we will buy into the idea, rather than just the item.

To get there we still have to define our conception not of the Smart City but of the Future City. Tech providers are now confronting the challenge that architects and master-planners have experienced acutely over the past 30 or 40 years. The technical solution although imaginative, creative and even visionary, is meaningless when there is no political conception of tomorrow.

Can a political conception of the good life come from a private body or a coalition of the willing? Or, more importantly, can that coalition create a space for the public sector to engage in its discussion of the conception of tomorrow? The broader questions must be to engage people in the matters that are relevant to them and the matters that the future appears to threaten. What is the future of work? How can I own my data? Will our children have a better life than us? What does it really mean to be human in the 21st century?

Morpheus on Smart Cities

Morpheus on Smart Cities 6

Smart City energy solutions present a transformational opportunity to meet our energy consumption demands and move to a low-carbon economy, but it’s precisely because they are holistic propositions at scale that the political system struggles to engage with them.

Across the UK the Smart City proponents could just as easily join forces with planners, architects and developers, as they could with each other, in making the case for a better housing provision. Both housing provision and Smart City solutions require a level of political vision and transformational upgrade which could make a strong unified business objective and one which would change the terms of British debate.

Defining Political Goals

By stimulating the political imagination, we are well placed to define what those holistic political goals should be. They should be honest, and they should be ambitious.

The honest admission is that the biggest gains for society in Smart City solutions are largely in utilities and so perhaps our ambition should be focussed on the upgrade of the grid: to transform energy production and its consumption.

It is also important to show that communications is in effect a fourth utility and that data management is also a matter of the public good, but one with a very different set of objectives. They are political goals as opposed to economic ones and require an even greater attitudinal shift.

However, to achieve that type of goal we’re going to need a cultural shift before we get to the political one. We need a coalition of the willing that can come together to create a conception of the future. What is the role of business in an age of political stagnation and technological exponential change other than to be the catalyst?

Towards A Wiggly Political Conception

To get there we might have to pause the Smart Sensor discussions and address the major issues which citizens consider really important. We like cities because they don’t have precise, defined boundaries. Cities have traditionally represented the thrill and adventure of being alive. The promise of the experience of the cosmopolitan, the fresh and the novel. They don’t fit in boxes; they’re a bit blurry, but the Smart Cities language game immediately smacks of control, efficiency and omnipotence. Smart Cities sounds like the imposition of order on what the philosopher Alan Watts referred to as ‘our wiggly lines’:

“The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. Only when human beings get to working on things-they build buildings in straight lines & try to make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here we are, sitting in this room all built out of straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out.” 7

Technology needn’t just be about forms of order. Certainly IBM’s dashboard conception of the world seems to be a dictator’s fantasy, but tomorrow’s city needs to throw off the shackles of Bentham’s Panopticon. The desire to monitor, respond to and control every aspect of life is Victorian nonsense which was never fully realisable and it is not desirable to anyone.

"I am not a number, I am a free man!"

“I am not a number, I am a free man!”

A city which can entirely meet the needs of the citizen sounds worryingly dystopian. Just as in Patrick McGoohan’s Prisoner we risk creating a smart village designed to contain people, rather than a city which nurtures and defines our individuality.

But there need not be such a divergence between our ambitions for technology to enhance our experience of the city and how we talk about the future of cities. On one level technology and utilities is pretty dull; rubbish collection isn’t exciting until it goes wrong; the upgrade of the sewage system is important but goes largely unnoticed. Uninspiring and unpublicised system upgrades can have life-changing consequences. Crossrail is about to open whole new quarters of London - regenerating and unlocking the economic potential of hitherto ignored parts of the city.

Basic systems can enhance our experience of the city and that is what we should be talking about. How can the improvement of this service or infrastructure enhance my experience of the city or free me up to seek personal fulfilment? It’s not necessarily the automated car that is thrilling but the time it frees up to pursue those all important CandyCrush targets or perhaps even something more purposeful.

So maybe it’s time for the term Smart Cities to evolve to the next stage. Maybe it’s time to abandon it altogether and to talk about specific technologies and what they can do for our cities. Perhaps we should be defining ‘Future Orientated’ City Initiatives’, and considering ‘Human-Centred 21st Century City Life’ and how technology is going to help us get there quickly. Ultimately technology companies need to raise the game and talk about ‘The Experience of the 21st Century City’. That’s the most exciting part of technology, when it unlocks the art of the possible, when it enables us to ask ‘what if?’ When, like all good cities, it appeals to our intrinsic human desire for novelty. Cities are successful when they are liveable and when they enable creativity and nurture ingenuity.


The cultural shift required to get us closer to solving the problems of, for instance, climate change or realising a better life inherent in the promise of technological opportunity, is momentous. Our preparedness for it requires that we create a new narrative to steer our course. In the case of London and the UK, I think one lever to get us towards that future vision is to host a World Expo in 2025. A grand global shared vision which will seek to answer tomorrow’s problems today. I have set out elsewhere the need to build a consortium of businesses and institutions who can help to make that vision a reality and will continue to build that story around a vision for Future London and here on this blog.

1. [For a comprehensive overview of the continuing evolution of the discussion, and someone that recognises that Smart Cities have to be about people consult Dr Rick - The Urban Technologist or Dan Hill at City of Sound 1]

2. [As shown by Schneider here, highlighting that India’s 98 smart cities list won’t supply anywhere near pent up demand in India’s 32% urbanisation growth rate which is putting stress on Indian megacities and their already creaking infrastructure. 2]

3. [For wilder estimates consult the consultants - Frost and Sullivan estimate a market of $1.6 trillion by 2020]

4. [For perhaps one of the stranger although very enjoyable contributions to the Smart City discussion see the Smart Energy GB campaign’s “Requiem for Smart Meters”.]

5. [For a comprehensive history of how we got from Ford to Musk and the challenge created by our auto servicing infrastructure consult Wait but Why?]

6. [We need to seek solutions which can achieve this at scale see WEF Scaling Technologies report]

7. [Philosopher and guru of the 70s Alan Watts is always interesting. This documentary outlines his view on how nature is wiggly but humans try to impress order on things. Great knitwear too.]

Posted by David Adam on 4 Dec 2015


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