Are smart cities really smart?

What makes a city truly smart and how does this benefits business? How will new technologies like 5G redefine what we mean by smart city?

If there's one thing the Covid-19 global pandemic has brought into startling clarity it is the need for connected services and remote access. From Dubai Internet City to Cape Town's smart city bid, governments across the globe have been building the next generation cities -- connected, open, and inclusive - for years and yet they feel even more relevant in the current context.

The question remains though, whether these smart cities actually positively impacting on growth and development. Do they work? Most experts are keen to point out that the use of technology alone is not enough to make a city smart; technology can be a tool, but, by design, smart cities require innovation across a range of processes as well as the implementation of technologies.

Bill Lawrence, counsel at Burr and Forman, says the appeal of smart cities lies in their predicted ability to both spur economic growth for their citizens and also reduce government expenditures. For example, he explains, research suggests that smart city solutions for managing vehicle traffic and electrical grids could produce $160 billion in benefits and savings by reducing energy use, traffic congestion, and fuel costs.

"Municipalities are incentivized to become smart cities, but municipalities that have burdensome or non-existent small cell siting processes will prevent themselves from becoming smart cities and reaping the associated economic rewards," Lawrence says. He adds that the carrot for municipalities is directly in front of them - carriers in the U.S. are willing and ready to invest $275 billion to deploy 5G networks, which could create 3 million new jobs and add $500 billion to the economy.

 

Benefits for all?

Not everyone is convinced that smart cities are really smart or that they benefit residents. Tim Sylvester, founder, CEO and CTO of Integrated Roadways believes the biggest challenge facing the current generation of smart cities is the high cost weighed against an unknown or undefined end benefit for the taxpaying members of the community.

"The technologies are expensive and often unproven, and the providers are expecting to be paid out of city funds for delivering the technologies. But cities' liabilities far outstrip their assets and revenues - by any commercial definition, most cities are actually bankrupt," he says. As such, Sylvester says, they cannot service their existing liabilities, and certainly can't afford to fund new, expensive obligations when they can't make ends meet with their current obligations.

"Finally, many of the technologies currently offered primarily benefit internal, municipal-facing operations like traffic improvements and law enforcement, and thus generate few or no public-facing direct benefits that can justify the added expense to the tax base that is expected to fund these projects," he says.

Martijn Groenewegen, Digital Strategy Lead at City of Rotterdam, says that the most important aspects of a smart city are the extent in which it adds value to the public. "It's about finding ways to turn data into solutions - especially sensor-data and turning this into services for the city," he says. To achieve this, Groenewegen believes, it is crucial that the technologies implemented are flexible enough to connect with and encourage collaboration between local businesses and communities. By providing open data and stimulating proposals for innovation, businesses and local communities can help the city with new business models and services.

 

Seamless connections

Paul Crane, Head of Engagement and Rollout at FibreNation, says that a true smart city looks to seamlessly join up intelligence between people, assets and technology in order to deliver true benefits for all inhabitants, businesses and visitors. "The main goal of a smart city is to elevate the quality of living for its citizens through smart technology and a Smart City should be designed putting the citizen at the centre, not the technology. It should open platforms not proprietary small-scale solutions in order to deliver a vision, not simply a technology step change," he says.

For Crane it is important to also engage all the community to share the vision and understand how it benefits each of them. "Without winning the hearts and minds it will never succeed as it needs scale and commitment to adopt new skills, new ways of working and living. Asia is leading the way with Singapore as a great example of how to create a true smart city," he says. In 2019 Singapore was named "the smartest city in the world", in the IMD Smart City Index.  Among the criteria that saw it rank so highly are its high levels of public safety, the educational opportunities which include lifelong learning, access to online job listings and the green spaces Singapore residents have access to.

Iain Shearman, MD KCOM, cites Paris as an example of a city that is embracing the smart city initiative. France's capital is currently developing the Grand Paris Express which will feature 127 miles of fully-automated metro lines and nearly 70 new stations, and by 2050, the city will have also replaced the 4,500-bus fleet of the Paris Region's primary public transport operator (RATP) with electric and natural gas. "It's little wonder that The IESE Cities in Motion Index 2019 which ranks the development of the world's smart cities, puts Paris in the limelight for its efforts in mobility and transportation," Shearman says.

Across the Atlantic, New York remains at top spot of The IESE Cities in Motion Index 2019 for the second year running. "Not only has the city turned to solar-powered smart bins but it is also making a monumental effort to reduce daily water consumption by deploying a large-scale Automated Meter Reading (AMR) system to gain a more comprehensive view of water use," Shearman says.

 

Low-code solutions

From Groenewegen's perspective, the use of low-code software development has really worked for Rotterdam. Rotterdam is ranked 36th in the IMD Smart City Index. Using the Mendix low-code platform, the team has implemented a number of solutions that already enhance the lives of citizens.

"From an application that helps ensure the appropriate use of outdoor space in Rotterdam, to software that supports more efficient litter collection and another piece of software that has improved the way police officers work, we're making a really positive impact on how the city is managed. The City of Rotterdam has so far developed a portfolio of 15 applications to drive efficiencies across the city, which have played a part in achieving nearly €1.5 million in operational efficiencies," he explains.

Johan Høgåsen-Hallesby, CTO of Urban Sharing, a Norwegian technology start-up behind a platform which powers shared micromobility systems, warns that anyone can buy and implement technology. "For a city to be ‘smart', it needs to find ways to ensure the technology and the city grow together. There needs to be a culture of open communication between the city and the company providing the technology." 

He explains that, while many cities have some form of smart data initiatives, the real change doesn't happen until these are combined with regulations. In Norway, Crane says, they have been financially incentivising electrical vehicles through tax-breaks, and they are gradually starting to see the same incentivisation for shared vehicles, for example, by giving parking benefits to shared cars.

"As a result, my home city of Oslo is already moving towards becoming car-free, which is something we're really proud of. To some, it might seem risky to make a radical change to something that defined how cities were used for nearly a century, but this is what makes room for new concepts and innovation, which helps to make efficient, smarter use of our shared infrastructure," he says. Oslo is ranked 3rd in the IMD Smart City Index.

One size fits all?

One of the concerns with smart city development is that smaller businesses could get left behind as cities focus on smarter solutions and connected services. On the provider side, Sylvester explains, small businesses generally lack the financial basis, work history, relationships, and legal compliance capacities to be able to work with municipalities and survive the long, arduous, and incredibly expensive concept-specification-letting-procurement cycle that cities have.

"On the user side, most smart city tech doesn't benefit small businesses but has enormous value for major corporations, for example a local restaurant or market can't reasonably make any use of the open data systems that cities implement, but Google, Panasonic, Microsoft, and IBM can," he says. And worse, he adds, the majors will access the open data systems for free, build a software interface accessible to small businesses, then sell access to those systems to small businesses who paid the taxes required to implement the technologies that generate the data.

"This dynamic creates a systemic separation over time between the small businesses, who can't sell into the market or make direct use of the products of their tax dollars; while major corporations gain most if not all of the public facing value created despite contributing essentially nothing to the municipal tax base that's paying for these benefits," Sylvester says.

Not all agree. Lawrence believes that, to the contrary, smaller businesses stand to gain by taking advantage of smart city technologies. "By leveraging big data analytics, using the Internet of Things ("IoT"), and marketing with 5G enabled interactive immersion technologies, a small business has opportunities to grow its business like never before," he says.

Groenewegen explains that at City of Rotterdam, they offer a 3D open data city platform where citizens and businesses - big and small - can engage with each other. "On this platform, we want to visualise the impact of decisions like building sites, sustainability and air-quality," he says.

 

5G means IoT innovation

Much focus has been placed on the potential of 5G to redefine the concept of a smart city. Groenewegen says that 5G will speed up the amount of possible data transfer. "This will enable more real time use of services and visualisation, such as virtual or augmented reality, and provide infrastructure for self-driving vehicles. These opportunities will be beneficial for start-ups and more businesses," he says.

Groenewegen says the main challenges that the current generation of smart cities are around equal access to services for citizens, providing equal data rights and ethical considerations in the use of algorithms for use cases that include data governance and the strategic position of cities. Rotterdam's approach has addressed these through its use of low code. "It also allows us to gain enough knowledge on workers in the region, which we collate by working together with schools and universities to offer a pleasant city to work and live in," he says.

Lawrence says that 5G and the IoT will together fuel the evolution of smart cities. He explains that, to deliver consumers the staggering, multi-gigabit speeds that 5G promises, carriers will use extremely high frequency millimetre waves that they have not used previously for consumer devices. These millimetre waves are crucial to 5G delivery, they do not travel as far generally as the lower frequency waves used to deliver 4G technology and there are other obstacles as well, such as atmospheric gases, which absorb the waves, line-of-sight path blockages, including building walls and some foliage, and rain and other precipitation forms.

Lawrence says that, to combat signal attenuation so that millimetre waves can carry 5G's promise of enormous data quantities at multi-gigabit speeds, carrier networks must have numerous, densely located connections to small, low-power, short-range, self-contained cell site nodes, also known as ‘small cell facilities' or ‘small cells', which are the building blocks of 5G networks. "Consequently, carriers are turning their attention away from deploying cell towers and other high-power macrocell sites and toward deploying small cells," he says.

According to Lawrence, cities that desire to reap these economic benefits and associated savings should have simple objectives for facilitating small cell deployments in their jurisdictions: streamlining permitting processes; adopting reasonable fee structures; modernising siting rules to ensure fair and reasonable access to utility poles and city owned structures; and reducing regulatory hurdles to small cell deployments.

He adds that, by adopting reasonable, streamlined, and up-to-date small cell deployment regulations, municipalities benefit their citizens by:

  • providing greater IoT access;
  • earning fee and rental revenues (including application fees, construction permit fees, right-of-way access fees, and rentals for installations on city owned structures);
  • protecting their jurisdictions by controlling noise and visual and design aesthetics;
  • enforcing zoning restrictions, managing and assuring public safety and accessibility; and
  • controlling the permitting of what is deployed within their jurisdictions. 

 

Incentivising true innovation and equity

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