How smart is a city? It all depends on location, location, location

5 Oct 2016

Smart cities. Image: jamesteohart/Shutterstock

A growing number of cities worldwide are putting a serious focus on smart technology, with everything from better energy flow to improved communications on the table. But what works where, and why?

At a recent smart cities conference in China, a host of city mayors, CIOs and CTOs from around the world spoke to hundreds of onlookers. One by one, they lauded their own initiatives, each aspiring to lead the smartest city in the world.

However, it’s a winnerless race with no finish line in existence. Some cities face certain problems, with only a few having unique infrastructure to solve theirs. Though it seems the problems are generally absent when smart city enthusiasts grab the mic.

Smart cities

Learning from mistakes

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from this event,” said Jessie Adcock, CIO of Vancouver, “is that our challenges are not specific to our city. Others are going through the same stuff. It’s nice to know that.”

They were some of the final words at TM Forum’s Smart City InFocus 2016: Yinchuan in September, and they delivered more than most that preceded.

Everyone in the public face of anything smart city-oriented seems remarkably positive.

‘We can do this, we can do that, success, success, success’ is the general theme. Adcock, and one or two others, were different.

Many of the talks in Yinchuan were jarring, appearing like a series of party political broadcasts but, when talking off stage away from the cameras, the reality began to roll out: for the good, you have to wade through the bad.

“We’ve had some failures, and the key is to learn from these,” said Jordi Puigneró, secretary of telecommunications, cybersecurity and digital society in the government of Catalonia.

Smart cities. View of Girona. Image: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

View of Girona. Image: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

The pain in Spain

Of these failures, Puigneró’s example was a humdinger. In Sant Cugat del Vallès, an area in Catalonia, a proposal to smarten up the parking situation made it through the various early stage teething issues that many ideas must pass.

It got all the way to prototype phase, with a subsequent roll-out of sensors proving a “complete disaster,” said Puigneró, talking with

“They wanted to create an app to tell people what area had free parking spaces,” he said, “so they put magnetic sensors under each space.

“It worked off magnets, knowing a car was above it due to the large amount of iron around engines.”

Unfortunately, the idea was doomed from the start. The sensors were put at one end of each space, so they didn’t read when drivers reversed their car in with their engine at the opposite end, instead reading that space as vacant.

“So they upped the sensitivity of the sensor,” said Puigneró, “but then it was so sensitive, it read cars in spaces to the left and to the right.”

‘New York City’s LinkNYC programme can democratise advertising’

Onwards and upwards

A complete failure, and a funny one at that. But it’s the failures that provide significant value.

“We learned from that,” he said. Catalonia will never make that mistake again and, through talking with officials and businesses around the world, presumably nobody else will either.

Some of Puigneró’s projects currently in the works revolve around agriculture which, beyond tourism, helps fuel Catalonia’s economic power.

Drones of all shapes and sizes are being investigated to help deliver treatment to crops, monitor crop growth and even, via land-based robots, pick fruit and vegetables when they are ripe.

“We’re creating a cluster of companies that represent 40pc of the drone industry in Spain,” he said. “These are the issues we need to solve so we put the farmers in touch with the drone companies; we are working on various solutions.”

If something works well, then agricultural areas around the world could benefit, learning from someone else’s successes and failures. And if it’s an urban issue your city has, look to equivalents elsewhere.

Canadian lesson

“Toronto, being the largest city in Canada, has the largest number of people who need financial assistance,” said Rob Meikle, CIO of Toronto. “We have approximately 100,000 people who need economic assistance.”

The problem Meikle and his colleagues saw was an odd one. When giving financial assistance to the needy, they realised a lot was going wrong. Many of those needing help had no bank accounts so Toronto’s approach to provide people with weekly cheques was flawed.

“They would take the cheque and go to a third party to cash it, who would charge up to 30pc to do so. This didn’t make sense, we weren’t helping who we needed to help,” he said.

The solution? A city benefits card, which is essentially a debit card. Toronto could eliminate the high volume of processing cheques, the queuing, the costly paperwork “and provide some dignity” in one card-giving swoop. Smart solutions should remove bureaucracy and this is a fine example of just that.

So successful is this solution that other Canadian states are interested, with Toronto currently investigating how to broaden out the scope of assistance provided on the cards.

“For us, a large city, a large base of people trying to access a service – any way to make it more effective and efficient is good. Adding in some dignity is even better,” said Meikle.

Phone a friend

Another excellent idea that is turning into a positive solution comes from the US, with New York City’s LinkNYC programme aiming to provide internet hotspots at 7,500 locations.

With thousands of payphones left idle after the world went mobile, New York spotted a way to solve a global problem: public access to internet.

“We put out a proposal that was very specific,” said Minerva Tantoco, former CTO of New York City. “We wanted to turn payphones into hot spots, it was up to companies to work out how.”

The city landed a partnership with a collection of companies, including Qualcomm, to create an entirely new smart network. Each payphone – and thousands of new fixtures in future – is in the process of turning into a modern piece of working street furniture.

The hubs have free Wi-Fi up to 1Gb in speed according to Tantoco, charging ports, free emergency calls and accessibility for people in wheelchairs. The companies building the network, in turn, can sell advertising throughout the city at very visible locations.

Smart Cities. New York. Image: Lee Nanjoo/Shutterstock

New York. Image: Lee Nanjoo/Shutterstock

Sun, followed by rain

“It can democratise advertising,” said Minerva. “If you’re a small company, you can buy micro advertising; if you’re a restaurant on that street, you can advertise what’s on sale that day.”

New York City, somehow, orchestrated the agreement so that it receives 50pc of all advertising revenue, too. Any cities with a similar congested, payphone-adorned street network will be looking on in interest as the project grows.

However, there have been some teething issues. Earlier this month, in-built tablets – originally installed to let people browse the internet – were removed.

This was due to people turning up with chairs to spend the day there watching movies, in the middle of the sidewalk, on the city’s dime. Given the high number of homeless people in New York City, the kiosks became an issue, fast.

Another lesson learned for the next wave of adopting cities.

Dublin answers

In Dublin the good, too, has come with the bad. In 2014, Intel was supposed to turn Dublin into the first ‘internet of things’ city by putting gateways at 200 locations, measuring this, reporting on that.

Dublin City Council was on board and Intel was keen but, for various reasons, it never came to pass. “It has pivoted,” said one Council member, generously.

Other initiatives like that at Croke Park, which is adding some clever smart technology to the stadium experience, are particularly promising.

“With three very high stands, you don’t get good exposure to light,” said Dr Suzanne Little of Dublin City University and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. This means artificial – and incredibly costly – lighting is left on for 22 hours a day, six months of the year.

The solution is simple: cameras monitor the sunlight on the pitch, providing Little and her team with information on what time of the day certain sections of the pitch need attention.

Bin friendly

Elsewhere, the trialling of smart bins in Dún Laoghaire has been a resounding success. It has managed to reduce the amount of times cleaners come to collect rubbish by up to 90pc, according to one person working on the project. Solar-powered compactors create more and more space for added refuse, all the while alerting officials when they’re full.

There are other examples of successes, failures or potential for both dotted around the world. Of particular interest is the idea of encouraging users of a bike share scheme to return bikes to empty bays, by rewarding them with discounts.

This would negate the need for a truck constantly driving through traffic to deliver bikes to A, even though B and C are full. Something similar in the US could see workers incentivised to leave home an hour later, getting a free coffee for their troubles and reducing traffic congestion in the process.

There are also new park bench proposals, with USB charge points and people-monitoring sensors, so city officials know what areas receive the most footfall. That’s before we look at the potential behind solar-powered homes, sharing surpluses throughout their street to benefit all.

But, in general, the learning curve seems steep. Should CIOs, CTOs and the companies they engage with spread the news of their trials and tribulations, maybe it will get easier in future.

As Adcock said, Vancouver officials are already feeling the benefit of knowing some of their less successful initiatives aren’t unique. Some successes aren’t unique, either.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic