Tech article: The Untold Challenges of Designing Smart Cities

“Smart Cities” – a trendy phrase likely to be hackneyed before even having achieved anything tangible in improving urban living conditions. Consultants, policy makers, think tanks – they all paint a rosy future for and through these smart cities. However, there are a few of us out there who are actually sweating to make cities smart. Today. Having part of the smart city eco system from its inception, I wish to review some untold challenges we faced as of the design year 2013, where focus is mainly on the use and deployment of smart city infrastructure rather than social, citizen and many other aspects.

Designing smartness into cities requires some major infrastructure upgrade; in a sense we are constructing the brain of the city. We have undertaken something similar before: we have built highways, the Internet, the Smart Grid. These prior connectivity exercises have two things in common: i) they have meshed and connected entities (computers, cities, etc) to the point that connectivity is secondary whilst the ability to provide services (FaceBook, supply chains, etc) has become prime point of interest; and ii) they were built without a specific nor proven return-of-investment (ROI) model in mind, with all of them having returned their investment by orders of magnitude. These connectivity initiatives however differ in one critical point compared to smart cities, in that they had significant governmental support which allowed them to become operational fairly quickly. Cities worldwide are inherently broke and governments historically don’t want to interfere too much with cities, the result being that there is very little financial support to making smart cities happen.

The biggest challenge of this early part of the 21st century is thus to bootstrap the undoubtedly high-potential smart city market in cities which are essentially broke.

To this end, I would like to share some hands-on experiences which we gained traveling around the world, knocking on the doors of cities and infrastructure providers, with the aim to generate business for Worldsensing, which is the only SME mentioned in Pike Research as a Smart City Pioneer, along CISCO, IBM, Vodafone, etc. During these travels, I figured there are roughly 3 types of cities: 1) ROI-driven; 2) carbon-driven; 3) vanity-driven. As for 1), the aim of rolling out smart city technologies is to generate income which pays for its deployment and more. There are many cities in the western hemisphere which fall into this category, such as Los Angeles, London. As for 2), the aim here is to reduce the carbon footprint and ideally become carbon neutral long-term. These are mainly cities in Middle and Northern Europe, such as Luxembourg, Helsinki, etc. Finally, “vanity” driven cities are mainly driven by events where the entire world is watching and they want to be perceived as “modern”.

The sales pitch in all three city types is of course very different. Take the example of smart parking, which is one of the product lines of Worldsensing: in 1), we sell 1 the business process behind the system which is able to spot infringers who have not paid their parking ticket; our ability to guide people to vacant parking spaces was rarely discussed during the sales meetings. In 2), we sell the ability of the system to guide drivers quickly to an empty parking spot or advise drivers that certain areas are completely full, thus reducing unnecessary traffic, traffic jams, and thus pollution. Our ability to fine citizens had to be kept very quiet. In 3), whilst budgets are often not a problem here, the deployment rarely went through public procurement which required a technical and vision alignment with the prime partner for the smart city project.

Based on these insights, I would like to share in subsequent blogs around 10 major challenges we faced, as well as some recommendations on how to go about them. In the meantime, a high-level overview of these issues has been published by the UK Design Council on the 16th October 2013, and can be accessed here.

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