Smart cities? It’s all about the smart citizens

5 Jul 2018

Christopher Clements. Image: PwC

We need to take a human-centred approach to smart cities, writes Christopher Clements of PwC.

Smart cities often come with an intake of breath. The very mention can get some nervous people thinking Big Brother state and all actions and movements will be monitored, data will be wide open, and robots will roam the street – some may be genuine concerns.

Some cities, such as Amsterdam, have made reducing traffic and street light usage as some of their main initiatives. The concept of ‘smart traffic management’ monitors traffic in real time, and travel time on roads is broadcast to allow motorists to decide the most efficient routes to take. Other cities, such as Barcelona, have also implemented traffic-reducing concepts.

Another example is Santa Cruz, where local authorities analyse crime data to predict law-and-order requirements, ensuring police presence is available where it is required at any point. Analytical tools generate lists of places where property crimes are more likely to occur and place police officers in these locations when there are no emergency calls.

‘For a smart city to flourish, there needs to be innovation and creativity’

Probably most major cities are terming themselves as ‘smart cities’ or involved in a ‘smart city’ initiative.

The key concept of all existing successful smart city initiatives is that they appear human-driven. For a smart city to flourish, there needs to be innovation and creativity. There needs to be problems identified to solve, problems that are affecting the citizens’ lives, real issues.

The resulting technology and solutions that prevail are the outcomes – they don’t make that city smart, they enable the city to better serve its citizens.

In essence, the smart city concept is a misnomer; what it really is, is smart citizens.

Inclusion of humans is integral to the outcomes a smart city realises. In Amsterdam, the residents are encouraged to promote ideas and initiatives through annually run competitions. An example is Mobypark, which allows owners of parking spaces to rent them out to people for a fee. The data generated from this app can then be used by the city to determine the parking demand and traffic flows in the city mentioned above.

On attending the 4IRC meet-up on ‘IoT: Smart City or Surveillance City?’, I was struck by two things:

  • the volume of ideas and concepts from the speakers was wide-ranging
  • they were just that: ideas

That may sound harsh but the concept of smart cities has been knocking about for a while now, under various guises and having differing conditions.

On listening to the talks at the meet-up, the Belfast Council initiative on smart cities is far-reaching and it has the potential to be fantastic, as long as it’s a human-centred approach to a smart city; in other words, letting the citizens outline the issues and be the beneficiaries of the outcomes.

Belfast as a smart city has to be more than a better internet connection, ‘smart bikes’ or a rapid transport system. It has to aim for more.

If we look at the example of e-Estonia: a true beacon of a country, not just a city, that has embraced not just the resultant technical outcomes, but engaged in the problems that needed to be solved. 99pc of public services are now available online to Estonian citizens.

Belfast has a challenge ahead of it. Can it take a human-centred approach to creating a smart city and solve real problems affecting people’s lives?

Maybe the outcomes won’t be technical or anchored in technology at all; maybe some of the solutions will make Belfast a unique smart city in that it solves real problems but not via technology.

Now that would be smart.

By Christopher Clements

Christopher Clements is a Connect Shaper, and digital QA and delivery lead at PwC.

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland