Smart Islands in a Dumb City

Author: Tristan Wilkinson / April 2, 2013

The concept of a smart or future city has been around for several years now. We have all seen thevideo that shows how our journey to the airport will be transformed in the future, with transport systems that are not only fully integrated, but intelligent enough to respond to changing circumstances and demands.

Agora Garden tower. Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Agora Garden tower. Vincent Callebaut Architectures

These visions offer a utopian view of a world that adapts to the needs of the user and automatically and seamlessly adjusts the various systems to optimise and prioritise the competing needs of different users.  Although these visions provide an interesting and easily accessible interpretation of what may be possible, it isn’t yet realistic. For the first time in history, the vision and the reality are starting to align, but they aren’t there quite yet.

The motivations are increasing for independent organisations whether public or private to invest in smart infrastructure. But the business models and platforms that enable collaboration across very diverse organisation types are still elusive. There is a genuine risk that in the short term we end up with a multitude of smart islands in a dumb city, in other words, individual clusters that are intelligent within their own boundary but that simply do not relate to each other or the environment within which they sit. Consider the scenario, you have two developments on either side of a road that are independently intelligent but do not connect to one other, or relate to the very street that passes in front of them. The risk of this scenario in reality is that the nirvana of a total city infrastructure that optimises resources will remain elusive. The benefits that are much cited will remain out of reach as these islands develop proprietary standards and differing business models. The impact will become evident to the people moving between these environments as the experience, quality and level of service changes or becomes unavailable.

Currently several global technology giants are investing in the smart city concept, this is to be encouraged but there does need to be attention paid to standards and interconnection between these deployments. The recent announcement of Glasgow as the winner of the TSB cash to pilot an integrated smart city is a great example of the momentum in the market at the moment, what we can’t afford to happen however is that this substantial investment doesn’t resolve some of the more difficult integration and business model challenges that exist.

One consideration is whether the model being developed is purely business to business or business to consumer. One requires a clear business plan comprised of cost analysis, stakeholder engagement and all sorts of other elements that make business feel comfortable, this can be done largely without the consideration or engagement of the public and will focus on infrastructure and cost reduction, these benefits are easy to identify but may lead to poorer service for the users. Once the needs of the individual users are placed front and centre and engagement plans for participation are considered, the priorities and process are very likely to change.

There needs to be a sustained effort to develop business models that work across organisations that have never collaborated before, let alone had a formal relationship. There will need to be some political leadership; for instance, there is little or no incentive for a water company and property developer to co develop especially where investment will be needed. Policy makers will need to decide the priorities, establish frameworks and provide assurance and incentives for business to invest over the long term. This won’t be easy, but if the opportunities are broken down into small steps and we don’t allow proprietary solutions to distract and divert resources, then this can be a very exciting opportunity to bring together systems and entire industries that have never worked together before.

If we want to make a smart city a reality, then we are first going to need some smart thinking on how we can make this possible.

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