What does it take for a city to be smart?
Frank Van Steenwinkel, the founder of Fidecity gave us a great overview on what it takes for a place to adopt the IoT goodies and call itself a smart city. Things are far more complicated than you think and technologies here come last.
The main conclusion that we have been able to draw from this event is that smart cities are not only about technologies. Of course, you cannot create a smart city without technologies, but you must come out with a vision first.
The vision of a smart city is something, which cannot be easily defined, as it depends solely on the city itself. Smart cities, in essence, are all about understanding people, their needs and their psychology. As long as you have that, you can align it with vision, cover with technology and make people happier. Or not, like it is the case in Belgium, where part of the people preach that Wi-Fi on public transportation is bad for their health. Because airport radar systems and cellular phone antennas are not, right?
Let’s say that you have managed to gather the vision, as well as to line it up to city’s inhabitants and you know the right technologies to make it real. What is missing?
Well, the missing part of this equation, highly unlikely for a technical person to deal with, is the politics. If you do not have the politics lobby in certain city, you are simply not making it smart. If there is no political will for changes, cities are not going smart. Period. Of course, there is a rational reason behind the lack of this will – making a city smart requires for all governments to open their data to public.
The case in European Union is that the Commission understands very well what is going on and literally forces (and funds) the transition. On the other hand, we are entering a citizen-centric era. Citizens nowadays are powerful enough, either through careful lobbying or harsh protesting to make data as open as possible.
As soon as the data is open, here comes the technology to process it and to make things at cities across Europe a bit more transparent. Pioneer in this area is certainly the city of London and the London Dashboard.
In the perfect occasion, a smart city will present its inhabitants with a portal that can be accessed by them. This portal will contain various information about the city, just as the London Dashboard does. On the side, the portal will have a subsection, where developers can register for free and get access to the particular’s city API via which data can be accessed. Just as we have App Stores for our phones, cities will one day have apps, as well. Yes, you heard me – city-centric apps.
To get a visual clue of what I am talking about, you should probably check the iCityProject. It represents the very same principles I drawn above – a portal, developer API and application store.
This, however is only on the surface. Below it there is a lot of hard work to be done, in terms of infrastructure. This infrastructure will gather the actual data, which will help governments take more informed decisions, as well as people to have more transparent control on the people they elected. It sounds more like an utopia, but in fact it should be read as real democracy.
Even if we leave the political aspects aside, the infrastructure of sensors can generate large monetizable data stream. Even we consider a city has well-sustainable economic climate and it does well, then we can look at the altruistic part of what it could be. For example, right now, in Barcelona the ambulances have the ability to disrupt the entire city traffic, in terms of traffic lights.
Say it is 6pm on Monday and an ambulance have to go through the entire traffic – even with the siren, even with the gentle moving from its way drivers – it might not make it. Instead, an automated system installed in certain ambulances allows them to generate a route, through which only green traffic lights are turned and the rest of the traffic is blocked for couple of minutes. Yes, it might be blocking traffic and might be causing (a little) inconvenience, but the trade – the trade is saving someone’s life. This is a great example of how IoT will improve the quality of our lives.
A lot of cities are already trying to become smarter. London, Barcelona, Geneva, Bologna, Gent, Helsinki [edit: Boris Nikolov] – the list can go on. Find out how things in your municipality works. Reach out to local mayors and talk to them. Preach about how IoT can improve the quality of your neighborhood and at some point, people in governments will understand. And smart cities will no longer be a sci-fi thing. They are no longer a sci-fi thing, actually.