Are cities missing out on ICT to become sensory hubs?

7 Dec 2011

IBM is laying the foundations for a smarter planet across Africa. IBM has created a Smarter Planet initiative. Image courtesy of IBM

The rapid pace of global urbanisation is creating challenges for cities to innovate and become smarter. Just last week, the first-ever global smart city congress drew attention to how ICT is going to play a pivotal role in creating future cities and now such human epicentres need to capitalise on their digital assets.

The Smart City Expo itself was held in Barcelona.

And a new report on the topic also claims that cities are wasting the potential of smart technologies by failing to realise the value of their hidden infrastructure and digital assets.

The Climate Group, Accenture, Arup and Horizon Digital Economy Research all collaborated with University of Nottingham to bring out the report, titled Information Marketplaces: The New Economies of Cities.

In early November, in Ireland, a report, Intelligent Infrastructure – Realising the Competitiveness Benefits and Enterprise Opportunities, looked at how, by harnessing next-generation broadband technologies, sensors and analytical software, the cost of deploying and managing critical infrastructure will be reduced.

And back in late October, to coincide with the opening of its Smarter Cities Technology Centre centre in Dublin, IBM held the Science of Cities Colloquium in Ireland to look at how cities can become greener and smarter and, ultimately, more attractive to live in by revamping areas such as transport, energy, infrastructure, education and weather analytics.

While cities are using information and ICT to improve their sustainability and efficiency, the report’s findings assert they are not recognising or measuring the full value of smart initiatives and are missing the opportunity to turn unused data and infrastructure into new, low-carbon solutions and services.

Fragmented ICT

It says the application of smart technologies is being hindered in cities because tech-led experiments often fail to achieve useful outcomes for consumers and residents and because cities often develop ICT in fragmented projects.

An additional reason for the failure of smart-tech integration in cities, according to the report, is because cities are unsure of the social and financial payback from the investments they are being asked to make.

Speaking today, Mark Kenber, CEO, The Climate Group, said the world’s cities “sit on vast untapped resources of data and infrastructure” that could be integrated to accelerate the clean revolution while also improving the convenience and quality of urban life.

“To unlock that potential, cities need the right leadership to create a vision of social, environmental and economic goals that can be achieved by a more integrated application of smart technology,” he said.

So what are the researchers proposing in order to maximise smart-tech integration in cities?

Common set of smart city metrics

The report argues that cities must capture the potential benefits of smart technology initiatives with a common set of metrics that can be translated into financial and non-financial values of relevance to different stakeholders.

The report’s authors assert that such a common set of metrics will enable cities to:

  • Compare the relative benefits of projects and prioritise between them a smart grid and a road pricing initiative, for instance
  • Achieve economies of scale by identifying how a communications backbone, in this instance, could be used for both applications.

“We need to reframe the intelligent city value proposition by measuring and articulating the full social, environmental and economic rate of return generated by city-wide initiatives,” said Simon Giles, global senior principal, Intelligent Cities at Accenture. “Only then can the private sector make the business case for participating. Only then can cities make the capital decisions that bring greatest value to citizens.”

Digital assets

Volker Buscher, director, Arup, pointed out how cities must “open up their digital assets and create a thriving information marketplace for innovations that achieve these aims”.

“It will take courage for city leaders to challenge the cultural norms of their administrations and expose themselves to this form of dynamic collaboration,” he added.

The report makes several recommendations to policy makers and companies:

Local and national governments

  • Encourage the use of common, international metrics to assess performance and to facilitate investment decisions.
  • Establish a capability within the city administration to align political objectives and civil administration with public and private-sector project execution.
  • Start a debate on open data and on the role cities should play in creating growth opportunities.


  • Understand the investment decision-making process of cities to ensure private-sector technology development aligns with public-sector legal and procurement processes and timescales.
  • Encourage pre-procurement taskforces, whereby companies can offer their technical expertise to help cities streamline procurement processes.
  • Use multi-partner trials to develop capabilities for longer term scaling of technology solutions.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic