What makes a city “smart”?

Blog: What makes a city ‘smart’?

15 SEP 2015

The term smart city, like the over-used 5G acronym, is tricky to define. Every so-called expert you ask has a different view. To date, there is no unified definition.

Many talk of platforms and infrastructure as the cornerstone. For some the focus is on sustainability, both environmental and economic; others point to specific objectives like improving transportation, governance, health and safety.

The head of Dubai’s smart taskforce, Aisha Bin Bishr, said she is working with the ITU on smart city KPIs with the goal of having standards nailed down in a couple of years. She said these will help give other cities a blueprint to follow.

Not content on just being a smart city, Dubai has set the ambitious goal of being the “smartest city” by 2020.

While there is no agreement on an exact meaning, a consensus is emerging on the fundamental elements required: data sharing, co-creation, engaging with citizens and integration.

The was the view of officials from 16 cities who shared their challenges and successes at the Smart City conference last Saturday, organised by the TM Forum in Yinchuan, an autonomous region in northwest China.

The two-day conference, which drew in about 250 people from governments, NGOs and private firms, had a high-level focus, looking more at vision and strategy, rather than case studies and implementation.

Power to the people
Although a few countries are taking a top-down approach, the more common view is that citizens are now driving smart initiatives, and as such, each city has its own unique objectives and strategies.

The user is now at the centre of every application it starts, not the government, said Joost van Keulen, vice mayor of Groningen, in the Netherlands. “It’s power to the people, giving control to the user.”

Cathelijne Hermans, from Amsterdam’s Economic Board, agreed, saying that it’s the new lifestyle for people, and governments have to wake up to the fact that people are driving the push for more efficient and sustainable civic services. “It’s hot and fashionable but here to stay.”

Atlanta CIO Samir Saini offered his tips on the smart city journey: “Focus on citizens’ pain points and leverage what is already happening in the community. He also suggests starting small with a “smart street” and then scaling up.

Tapping existing resources rather than searching for new data was a common recommendation. See-Kiong Ng, programme director for Singapore’s Institute Infocomm Research, suggested focusing on the data that you already have as it can be costly to capture new data sets.

Singapore is creating visual maps to look for traffic patterns and take steps to improve flows. See-Kiong Ng wants to move from looking at the past to prediction so it can avoid future problems. “We also need to break data silos to better serve citizens.”

Van Keulen, however, pointed out that each city is at a different stage, noting that Groningen added sensors to its rubbish bins ten years ago. So the idea of a universal blueprint isn’t something that fits well with the realities each city faces.

Paul_WilsonAttracting partners
Paul Wilson (pictured left), managing director of Bristol is Open, stressed the need to bring in partners. “We can’t do it alone. We’ve found ways to create IP around experiments that is shared between different companies. We want to scale up that model.”

Bristol, a city of 600,000 people in west England, has built a wireless mile using 3G, 4G and certain experimental 5G technologies, which is controlled by an SDN (software defined network) using NFV. Wilson said it added a mesh network of connectivity using lampposts, which covers 99 per cent of the city and also built its own cityOS based on OpenFlow.

“This allows companies to do IoT experiments across the city,” he said. “Starting next July, you’ll be able to get a slice of this network on a pay-as-you-go basis and you’ll be able to play with our city in all sorts of intriguing ways.”

It plans to expand the network to nearby cities and open it up for others to innovate with the city. The aim is to move from data harvesting to being programmable where people can intervene in different aspects of the city. “Not just knowing what’s going on but to change it as well,” he said.

It is moving towards city experimentation as a service.

Among a number of IoT projects, he said, 11 companies are working on a driverless vehicle in Bristol.

Cities are more healthy
Access to open data has enabled director of sustainability for New York’s transportation authority, Projjal Dutta, to find a strong correlation between the number of miles driven per person and a city’s level of obesity.

“As you drive more you get more unhealthy. There is a high inverse relationship between health and driving,” he said.

Dutta cited figures showing energy consumption per capita in New York at about the same level as in Japan and Germany. But in New York’s five boroughs (districts) – where public transportation is plentiful — it’s almost half the New York state level. In Texas it’s more than three times higher than NYC.

Smart building initiatives are pointless in terms of energy savings if everyone in the building continues to drive to the office, he argued.

Dutta complained that many smart mobility initiatives are designed for the elite. “You need sustainable mobility.” He gave the examples of a bike sharing programme in Guangzhou, China, that doesn’t require a smartphone or a dock, which can be full.

But a bunch of separate projects don’t make a smart city. Lisbon’s director for economy and innovation, Paulo Carvalho, said it is looking at how to be more integrated and is working around sustainability, engaging citizens and improved quality of life.

One area where there was no debate was the key drivers for making cities smarter: rapid urbanisation, pressure on resources, tighter government budgets and more demanding citizens who are increasingly always connected.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


Joseph Waring

Joseph Waring joins Mobile World Live as the Asia editor for its new Asia channel. Before joining the GSMA, Joseph was group editor for Telecom Asia for more than ten years. In addition to writing features, news and blogs, he...

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