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From inspiration to application: how can smart cities finally become mainstream

December 12, 2022

A review of the 2022 Smart Cities Expo World Congress in Barcelona

A few weeks ago, 20,000 people from 134 countries descended on Barcelona for Smart Cities Expo World Congress. Once again, there was a palpable sense of excitement, passion and innovation in the air as countries, cities, academics, entrepreneurs, and even boxing legends came together to discuss how technology can transform the lives of citizens. 

“Too many smart cities projects start with the technology, and not with the impact the project can have on citizens – this has to change.” This comment from Raf Tuts, UN-Habitat at the very first session of the event set the stage for this year’s theme: ‘cities inspired by people’. There was a genuine sense of shared ambition across speakers and exhibitors to create initiatives that improve the lives of citizens, but also a clear acknowledgement that we haven’t quite nailed it yet. The reasons for this are vast and complex, but we’ve tried to distill some of the key themes below, and look at what needs to happen to drive rapid progress in creating successful smart cities that address the critical problems. 

Technology is moving forward at pace 

From impressive Lego displays showcasing interoperability, to 3D printed models of buildings to graphene brains, it was evident to see that smart city enabling technology is advancing at pace. Digital twins were a stand out trend this year, with a range of providers working on virtual replicas of buildings, developments, or full towns or cities that support critical decision making. One of the key elements here being simulation. In the city context, this could include modeling crowd dispersion after large events to help stadiums, traffic enforcement and police forces effectively plan and resource their teams. It could also include assessing the impact of a new building on traffic load, carbon footprint and other factors to support planning decisions. 

While there are a range of cities across the world using digital twins in various guises, Orlando is perhaps one of the largest and most advanced. Covering 800 square miles, the twin integrates real-time data from the public and private sector to allow stakeholders to see how their plans will impact the region. Developed by the Orlando Economic Partnership in collaboration with Unity, the model is predominantly used for urban planning and driving inward investment, by demonstrating pockets of available land, infrastructure connection and available skills. However, the team is keen to expand these use cases, and says the possibilities are endless.  

Extended Reality continued to be a theme, but it was the metaverse that got the most buzz at The Fira this year – perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone that follows tech trends! While most of us will have come across this concept in relation to gaming, and potentially hybrid meetings and events, cities are beginning to use the metaverse to make services accessible virtually. Seoul, for example, is in the midst of creating a virtual office which will allow citizens and businesses to make suggestions and complaints to he municipality. This is the first step in a £33million programme to make all municipal services available in the metaverse. Dubai also announced its metaverse strategy in July of this year, which aims to create 40,000 new jobs. 

Linked to many of the applications of these new technologies in practice is the use of 5G. Many of us will have experienced the benefits of 5G on our mobile devices – particularly when it comes to streaming or downloading videos while on the go. This is not only due to the additional speed of the technology, but its lower latency (essentially, its ability to transmit very high volumes of data with minimal delay). These attributes make 5G essential to smart city applications, where data from sensors, drones, traffic systems and more are vast, and safety is of the utmost importance. A good example of this in practice is Sunderland’s autonomous logistics trial which, earlier this year, saw the successful delivery of car parts from a local supplier to the Nissan car plant. The autonomous, electric vehicle integrates data from sensors, LiDAR cameras and drones to increase the field of vision and detect the vehicle’s ability to overcome unexpected conditions like an object in the road, switching controls back to a driver when needed. The trial was only possible due to Sunderland City Council’s extensive, city wide 5G trial. 

There is collective purpose, but lack of cohesion  

With so much exciting technology in development, it’s easy to feel like a kid in a sweet shop. But this often leads to initiatives that are led by technology, not those that are focused on improving the lives of citizens, and solving critical problems like climate change and inequalities. 

While speakers across the board seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to technology being an enabler in smart cities, it was also clear that there are a number of issues with achieving this in practice. One of the key ones is that smart city initiatives often have a range of stakeholders involved, all with competing priorities, making cohesion and clear objectives difficult. This is compounded by the short term view of governments linked to the usual 4 – 5 year election cycles. Smart city initiatives therefore need to demonstrate return on investment in a very short period of time and there is also a lack of long-term planning needed for sustained transformation. Another is that development is often dominated by technology providers, engineers, universities and local governments, with little input from everyday people that actually consume services. This in turn can lead to a lack of awareness, engagement and adoption from the public, which ultimately means initiatives fail. 

Co-creation is essential to avoiding this, and ensuring smart city projects have the impact they need. A few cities are leading the way in this. In Paris and Reykjavik, for example, online platforms have been created where citizens can suggest and vote for ideas to improve the cities. Madame Mayor I have an Idea and Better Reykjavik have both experienced high levels of engagement from citizens, and seen substantial investment from governments to implement initiatives. Meanwhile, Smart Citizen is engaging citizens in curating environmental data to drive awareness of their impact on their city, make informed decisions about their own behaviour and campaign for their governments to take action. 

Bridging the digital divide 

One of the major barriers to smart cities driving positive impact on people, is that there is still a major digital divide, and widespread data poverty. In fact, there are around 2.9billion people in the world (roughly 40% of the population) that are unable to purposefully engage with the digital economy. This is not a problem that is contained to the developing world. Here in the UK, 22% of people lack basic digital skills and seven per cent are entirely offline. 

Left unaddressed, this lack of digital access excludes the most vulnerable in our society from new smart city services and will exacerbate growing inequalities. 5G is likely to play a major role here, and cities like Sunderland and Westminster are exploring the roll out of city wide 5G initiatives to ensure digital access for all.  

Partnerships will breed progress 

While this year’s Smart Cities Expo World Congress was no doubt inspirational, it is hard to ignore that the concept of smart cities is not materialising at the rate it should. Although the idea has been around for decades, initiatives still feel experimental and embryonic. The complexity of the stakeholder landscape is clearly a major contributor to this. This is not just about the number of people involved in improving city systems, but also the fact that politics and commercial motivations sometimes detract from the overall purpose of smart cities – to drive economic growth, protect the environment and improve the lives of citizens. 

It is often times of crisis when we see these barriers removed and rapid progress made. The war in Ukraine, for instance, has seen a rapid pivot of Digital Kyiv. Previously an app that sold Metro tickets, Digital Kyiv has become an essential wartime survival resource. Now, it provides real time air raid alerts, information on the nearest bomb shelters, pharmacies, petrol station, and even blood banks for injured fighters. Kyiv has also stepped up availability of public wifi across the city, bringing coverage to more than 200 bomb shelters to ensure the flow of information to citizens. The covid-19 pandemic also saw similar rapid innovation in healthcare, transport and government services. 

The common thread in these scenarios is not just addressing immediate needs, but in stakeholders coalescing around shared goals that serve their own needs, as well as contributing to a much wider purpose. But it shouldn’t take impending doom for the ecosystem to work effectively together. The same can and should be true in normal times. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a natural North Star for the development of smart cities, and there will likely be big rewards for those addressing these challenges both politically and commercially. But, back to the point from Raf Tuts, the big winners won’t be the ones with the fanciest technology, it’ll be the ones that co-create solutions and drive a positive impact on everyday people. 

Monstarlab has worked with a range of private and public sector clients to create smart places that add value to businesses, their stakeholders and drive positive impact on the surrounding community and environment. Click here to see more on our work in his space, and contact Charlie MacDowall  if you’d like to talk about working together.  

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