UK: When Cities Get Disrupted

Last Updated: 23 December 2015
Article by Deboh N'Diaye

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

We have seen much discussion on WiThink on how digital and technology innovation has disrupted businesses in the music and media industry however, while this type of disruption has captured our attention, another one was gradually making progress: affecting cities and government. Similar to businesses, the advent of digital and tech innovation have pushed cities and governments to rethink the way they operate and engage with their citizens.

The world is becoming more mobile. Whether across the globe or at a national level, people can have a certain degree of flexibility when deciding where to live. There are a handful of "global cities" that are effectively competing with one another to attract the best talents and businesses. Appearing as a smart, efficient city, that's environmentally safe and free of logistical nightmares is a valuable selling point.

So what is a smart city?

Though definitions may vary, my personal perception of a smart city is one where authorities and public services leverage on technology, the interconnectivity of systems and data processing to make public services more efficient, administrative tasks simpler and to engage with communities. Just like most businesses today focus on enhancing the customer experience, cities have started to seek the optimisation of the "citizen experience".

The transition to smart cities has been facilitated by the rollout of more performant broadband infrastructure networks (such as the optic fibre, 4G connections and free wifi hotspots) over more territories as well as by the ubiquity of personal connected devices in our society.

Connected devices and data processing have, for example, the potential to greatly enhance capacities to improve the use and delivery of public services. The city of Barcelona, which was voted 'Global Smart City – 2015' in 2015 by Juniper Research, has, for example, adopted the use of sensors and a tele managing system to run the irrigation of the city's green spaces. The network of installed sensors provide information as to which areas need to be irrigated and which do not. To minimise water waste, the tele managing system quantifies the amount of water needed, factoring in data on rainwater, evaporation and drainage.

Connected sensors have a wide area of applications in public service management from the optimisation of the collection of domestic waste, to the instalment of smart street lighting networks and the efficient notification and allocation of free parking spaces. These applications are not only eco-friendly but also allow for a more efficient use of public spending. 

An evolving partnership between businesses and smart city investment is key. Businesses have long been positioning themselves to benefit from smart city investments by providing the technologies and services (such as sensors, networks and data analytics) needed for well-connected cities to function. Cisco has partnered with several cities such as Hamburg to provide them with the sensors and network infrastructure to run their port. In June 2015 Google's parent Alphabet launched Sidewalk Labs. "An urban innovation company that will develop technology at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, with a focus on improving city life for residents, businesses and governments." In my opinion, a company like Uber is the epitome of a smart city company. It has completely shaken up the way private transportation is organised in cities and strives to make the experience efficient and simpler for customers. In my opinion, all city services and businesses should be "uber-ed" and governments should embrace it, not fight it.

As we progress into this century, the transition to smarter cities will also be crucial to address the complexities that will inexorably arise with the rapid urbanisation of the world. A 2014 UN report estimated that 54% of the World's population currently lives in an urban area (compared to 30% in 1950) and predicts that this number will rise to 66% by 2050.

Is there a downside?

While the concept of smart cities comes with great ideas, the downside, as with all things big data, is that their application collides with concerns of data security, anonymity and a mistrust of a system that has the potential to monitor its citizens on a continuous basis. 

These concerns should however not prevent us from trying more efficient ways of managing our community life. There is common ground to be found between developing smarter cities and respecting individual freedom. As I am writing these blog lines, the COP21 Conference just wrapped up  in Paris. While we await to see concrete changes from the top, the adoption of smart technologies for cities management offers a powerful tool to tackle environmental and sustainable development issues at a grass root level, putting the individual citizens at the centre of the solutions to improve the world they live in.

Disclaimer: WiThink is written from a personal perspective. All views and opinions are those of the author.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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