Smart cities are interpreted in many different ways. A city full of sensors and trackers, watching your every move. An expensive and inhuman piece of technology. An intrusion into our privacy. Though they can be portrayed that way, smart cities are often misunderstood. The real definition?
We sat down with David Vogt and Vaclav Vincalek, executives at Canadian smart city innovation hub Urban Opus, to find out. We can all agree that smart cities are meant to improve our lives, but in this case the journey is the most important part.
Why is this such an important topic? As the urban population increases, the need for smart cities does too. Reading on, you’ll find that once a good idea has been put into practice, it can be easily replicated from one city to another. Each smart city doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel --- just adapt it.
Here’s some key insights and snippets from our conversation, with the full video if you’re tempted.
Let’s start with Urban Opus: what’s the pain point that you’re addressing through this initiative?
David: "Urban Opus was founded on the principle that everything people hear about smart cities is commercial hype, meaning it’s companies trying to sell you things, or rather companies trying to sell cities’ things.
"There's a real opportunity for the improvement of cities and Urban Opus was framed around not commercial value, but quality of life. Smart cities are really about data, but how can you use data for quality of life rather than commercial benefit."
Vaclav: "The older you get the more you realize that the technologies are never really the barrier or the solution -- it's the people that have the power to improve things.
"I get more and more sensitive when people or organizations say, “If we have more technology, sensors, and computers that will solve all our problems -- then life will be beautiful.” From my experience I can tell you that it's rarely the case that we really need new technology. We have enough technology right now to improve things for the betterment of humanity."
The argument that smart cities should be valuing the human aspect over technology in certain areas, is not a new one. And actually, the fear that technology would hold more importance than people has been conceptualised in enough novels for our imaginations to run wild.
The misalignment of needs and outcomes is a problem for some. In many places, smart city initiatives don’t meet citizen needs, rendering any new technology pointless. Market research proves its worth here.
How would you describe a smart city?
David: "I think the conventional view, and this is one we share, is that smart cities have something to do with improving cities through the use of data. Imagine a city as a machine. If you have sensors in every part of the machine feeding into some kind of central processor, you can make the machine more efficient. There's nothing wrong with that -- it's just that cities aren't machines.
"How can you look at data being something that improves quality of life? Quality of life is a lot more important than whether you can find a parking space -- it’s much more than what the smart city marketing tells you.
"Upwards of 80 percent of any cities’ budget is spent on engineering, which is roads and sewers and the like, so it's not surprising that large corporations are trying to sell cities. They don't get into the messy problem of quality of life for people who inhabit the cities because it's troublesome. The corporate side and the government side only wants to look at that machine model.
"Vaclav and I both say this is the time we need to be looking at the human part of the city -- not only how humans can participate actively in this, but how can data be the new oxygen of cities that people breathe in and out to actually make their lives better and more inspired. It's about interaction design and creating ways that people can feel secure and safe, like they are contributing something at the same time."
What’s the problem with smart cities at the moment then. What would an ideal smart city achieve?
Vaclav: "The term smart city came out of IBM advertising if I’m not mistaken. They created the
‘smart planet, smart city’ idea. It became the memo which everybody ran with without really comprehending it. As with all labels it became unclear what actually constitutes a smart city, and how you can recognize whether or not you live in a smart city.
"Shouldn’t we judge a city or environment by how welcoming it is to anyone coming from the outside? For example, you already know how to live in Vancouver, you know the public transportation, you know whether schools and facilities are -- but for someone who has just arrived, how long does it take them? You need to figure out where you’re going to stay, what you’re going to eat, where you’re going to put your kids in school, where you’re going to work -- so how long does it take you to get assimilated in a city so that you can become a functional citizen?
"We always talk about smart cities from the perspective from inside the city itself, but we don't consider when people come in from the outside, and what the city will do for them. I think that's even more important than for people living there because they already know how to live there. So that's one aspect.
"Some time ago I was in Europe, and we were visiting various cities and talking with entrepreneurs there. One application I heard of was for people who used wheelchairs. As the person in the wheelchair would go through the city, they would use the application to map not only where they were going, but the quality of the road they were travelling on.
"If cities were as smart as they say they are, they would encourage every single person in a wheelchair to use this application so they would get real-time data on how disabled people travel around the city. They would see places disabled people never go to and realise there is no access for them, or there is a barrier, or the road isn’t good enough to go there, and they can start actually adjusting the city for people who live there."
There isn’t a need for sensors and eyes on every citizen. The best way to find out what people need, is for people to collect and return data to the city. This real-time transfer of information benefits the people inhabiting an area. Once that data is passed on, it’s the city and government who hold responsibility.
By using people instead of technology, there’s an opportunity to ask questions that only a human could answer. How do they feel about different things? How has their quality of life changed? Would they pick one solution over another? AI and machines can do many things, but they can’t accurately measure and describe our experiences like we can.
It sounds like we aren’t implementing smart city technology as well as we could do. What’s going wrong?
David: "The typical implementations of smart city technology can be found in infrastructure monitoring and maintenance pieces -- transportation, energy, etc.. The problem with that is they are very expensive to implement, and much more expensive to maintain.
"For example, sewers will last for 100 years -- but once you put a sensor into a sewer, it’ll need to be changed in 2-3 years time. The lifetime of technology goes very quickly, and that’s why it’s such a corporate model. The best sensor in the city has two legs and is already walking around, highly intelligent, and their smartphone is a wonderful data collector and sharer. There’s already a huge incentive in place for people to upgrade their ‘sensors’ all the time because they want the best new phone, and so they’re going to have the best technology for collecting. What you have to engineer around that is: how what data is being collected, what is the humans’ part in making a decision so they feel their privacy and security is being maintained, and how they build social capital for participating.
"For instance, some areas of China have put in sensor bases for smart cities, but a lot of it has to do with facial recognition, so they can know where every one of their citizens is all the time. That’s not what I think most people want. So if you’re monitoring and controlling people, that’s the wrong way for an infrastructure to go.
"A city like Vancouver could make enormous amounts of headway in this area, with a simple model of saying to Uber, Lyft, and Foodora that they have to share their aggregated, anonymised data with everyone else, so we can understand where this is going. It’s not going to impede any profits. Can you imagine if we combined information from car-sharing, bike-sharing, and citizens in wheelchairs to create better mobility for everybody? Right now there’s no data broker in place collecting and sharing valuable data, that can say that the data is clean, high quality, and anonymised."
What Urban Opus’s next step towards this?
David: "We take an experimental approach. We are working with organizations to implement projects on an urban scale -- but rather than taking a machine model for a city, our model is a community of communities. It's based on trust. The average citizen is not going to trust their data about where they're traveling, with for instance, City Hall. But if they travel by bike, they might trust their bicycle club. That's a community of interest for them. People belong to a whole set of a wonderful tapestry of communities that make up a city. If each one of those communities within a city were able to serve their people better using data and trickle up the data we believe that's where smart is going to grow.
"Our process is project by project, app by app, we believe that cities will grow as a community of communities. A smart city made up of smart communities where people are engaged and inspired to share their lives, breathing data like oxygen."
Smart city is a bit of a misnomer -- can apply this methodology to rural areas too, right?
Vaclav: "Outside the boundaries of the cities is where we get food, and everything else that comes to the city. Cities have a vested interest in being able to support these rural communities as much as they can. The bigger the cities, the more resources they need coming into the city. Also being able to provide equal opportunities for people living in rural areas is in everyone’s best interest because we know that living on a farm is a very difficult life, and less and less people are now inclined or willing to do that.
"The integration between the city and anything outside of the city is critical, and so no solution for smart cities can be properly implemented without integration with the areas outside the city."
Some countries with higher rural populations are considering how smart city technology can actually be translated into the countryside. A town in Colorado attracted over 25 new businesses and increased tourism profit by improving broadband infrastructure. The UK’s Lake District has considered bin sensors, to reduce the overflow of trash in green areas.
Smart cities need to become smart countrysides, again looking at the citizen’s needs rather than the technology currently in hand.
What kind of impact could a smart city of the kind that you both have described, have on the world and the cities we live in?
David: "We see the world as roughly 10,000 cities Vancouver-size or above -- that's a huge number of people, and humanity is flocking to cities all over the world. We believe that by 2050, 70% plus of humanity is going to be living in those cities, and from a technology point of view they're likely going to be very ‘cookie cutter’ (meaning they have the same kind of infrastructure everybody has).
"For instance, each of them will have one of six different smartphones, even though within them they have very different cultures, religions and communities. We can see that an app that's developed in Budapest for example and works for a set of specifically people there, can be easily transposed anywhere else. We see the world of cities as being an incredibly fertile place, because there are so many bright people. The model for smart cities as machines organized by central bodies like city government is completely unscalable."
Vaclav: "Every single time we talk about smart cities you hear companies complaining that the city is not buying the greatest technology solution from them. Well, show me a city in the world that says “we have so much money we don't know what to do with it”. Every city is constantly budget-constrained, every city is always fighting to just keep the infrastructure going. A city’s government being able to pay for these new things is an illusion, it’s a political process.
"We see that the the Smart City should not be equal to charity or nonprofit organizations or just
depending on the government paying for the solutions -- quite the contrary. it can be highly profitable. If the data that is being shared will help people to improve their lives, then everybody should be a winner."
David: "For example -- there is no city in the world that can afford to properly serve the citizens of that city who have to use wheelchairs. But the citizens of one city who use wheelchairs can work together with a simple app to collect data to make their lives better. If that app works in one city, it’ll work in 10,000 other cities, and all of a sudden you’ve amassed all these people that can’t be served by their city, to serve themselves on a global scale."
It’s not a ‘one shoe fits all’ kind of scenario, but across every border and ocean the human race faces similar problems. There are software developers and tech companies starting to address some of these issues, creating apps and products that make life a little easier.
Are you an innovative company developing smart cities technology -- and in need of public relations? We can help you tell your story and get the media coverage you deserve. Contact us now.