Smart cities: How sensors, data and analytics can transform millions of urban lives

Learning the lessons of past smart city experiments, with Nesta’s Tom Saunders

When you think of smart technology, it’s tempting just to consider your phone, TV, fridge or maybe your lamps, but that’s just small fry. The Internet of Things has the power to change lives on a far greater scale than the simple convenience of changing mood lighting via your mobile.

How, as so often when it comes to Internet of Things applications, is a little bit harder to pinpoint, but the potential is most definitely there and visible in small-scale examples around the globe. One man who knows more about this than most is Nesta UK’s Tom Saunders, who has done a lot of research into the future of smart cities, including co-authoring a study on how smart cities should be approached, to ensure the limitless possibility isn’t squandered on data for the sake of data.

That, Saunders explains, has been something of a problem in the past. “There's a noticeable gap between the promise of smart cities and the outcomes of actual projects, where the evidence of benefits is much harder to pin down,” he explains. “Take the Santander city-wide sensing project for example; it placed over 10,000 sensors across the city, and the outcome of the project was that it allowed researchers to collect lots of data – not improve in any way the way that the city functions.”

Of course, the term “smart city” is actually a bit of a misnomer – at least compared to how we look at other smart products, which are designed from the ground up to integrate seamlessly with their vast array of sensors and circuits. Cities, being centuries old, have to take a far more incremental approach. But why not build a smart city from the ground up, like a modern day Milton Keynes? “The enthusiasm for building smart cities from scratch has largely died out. This is because 'solutions' developed for artificial cities with very small populations rarely work in vastly complex real cities,” explains Saunders.

In other words, if smart cities were phones, they’d be Google’s Project Ara and not the Samsung Galaxy S7 or iPhone 8. That's because, unlike these future handsets, there wouldn’t be a queue around the block to move to a custom built “Smartchester”, were it to open tomorrow. A better way, Saunders explains, is to deliver small trials to local regions and then roll them out on a larger scale. By contrast, a smart city built from scratch might offer entirely wrong sociological conclusions, because a town of under 10,000 will function entirely differently to an urban conurbation such as Birmingham or Liverpool.

London is both a good and bad case study for smart city incrementalism, due to the way the city has changed over the years. There are planned measures (such as the London Air Quality Network, which measures air pollution and maps it with special sensors) and the unplanned, such as the tube network, which due to the intelligence of the Oyster Card, has built up an amazing profile of how up to 4.4 million citizens use the transport network every day. Commuters can also be measured by cameras in the congestion charging zone, which uses cameras to identify car number plates. However, London's problem is its sheer size: it’s not unheard of for different boroughs to come up with their own solutions to the same problem – an app, say – when they could save money and a lot of teething problems by simply sharing their resources and experiences.

Perhaps that’s why the latest government grant for IoT research has headed north. Manchester has been in the news recently because it has just received a £10m grant to become a “world leader in smart city technology”. Is £10m a lot in these kind of trials? Saunders points out that, while this is less than half the £24m Glasgow got for its Internet of Things trial, it should still be enough to make a splash. Indeed, splitting the budget between a number of cities was originally considered, before it was decided that one concentrated fund would see stronger results.

So £10m should be enough to see results if the city uses the budget wisely. Saunders has a number of tips for the city planners to get the most out of this pot of gold, but perhaps the most significant is the need to find a problem that could obviously be solved by technology, rather than shoehorning Internet of Things-based solutions without thought. If a city is congested, for example, find a way of measuring the problem first before reaching for a buzzworded solution.

There are certainly plenty of good ideas to “borrow” from cities around the world, and Saunders doesn’t believe any single city has a monopoly on good smart city ideas. There are elements that could be taken from all over the world, from intelligent streetlights in Glasgow (which switch on as required) to smart bins in Barcelona, which could save the city 10% on waste disposal by only sending refuse collections to fully loaded dustbins.

There is, however, a need to be careful with technological “direct democracy” innovations. Although the idea of engaging disaffected citizens in local government through the computer is a admirable one, it has two common drawbacks. Firstly, the kind of people who use apps or websites for local government tend to be the same people already represented, and, secondly, even if they do work as intended, they often only appeal to distinctly limited demographics. The city of Tartu, Estonia, attempted to introduce online voting to decide how one percent of the city’s budget was spent, and the main respondents were 30 to 36-year-olds, skewing the democratic process in the process.

There’s a certain irony in this, given that older generations are significantly more likely to brave the wet and cold for a traditional ballot. This just underlines that, with all these measures, modern innovations need to supplement existing practices to ensure that democratic disconnect isn’t simply shifted from one demographic to another. Paris seems to have taken this on board with its own scheme entitled “Madame Mayor, I have an idea,” which intends to allocate €500m to citizen-suggested projects over the next five years. Crucially, it supplements its online voting and idea submission with physical meetings around the city to ensure that fewer tech-savvy voices aren’t excluded from the discussion.

That is, perhaps, the key message that all smart city planners need to bear in mind: the technology that will power the cities of the future has enormous potential, but at its heart it still has to represent the wants and needs of the citizens who pay for it, rather than the data enthusiasts who get truly excited by this stuff. “An issue with new digital tools is that they can lead to lazy thinking: everyone has a smartphone, so all I need is to build an app and then I can engage with my citizens, as they all have smartphones,” explains Saunders. Hopefully Manchester will avoid such thinking, and its ambitions can be realised beyond stat-happy theory.

READ THIS NEXT: From firefighters to retailers: Internet of Things outside the home.

Images: Mike Behnken, Giuseppe Milo, Mike Kniec and Pug Girl used under Creative Commons

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