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Cities With Brains: What Does it Take to Create Smarter Cities?

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Tuesday 27th February, 2018

Cities are getting smarter. Using a mix of high- and low-tech solutions, urban spaces are innovating with increased transfer of information (and usage of data), efficient transport systems, renewable sources of energy (and less energy usage overall), better usage of space, and more integration of intelligent ICT systems built into the fabric of the city itself. We have scarcer resources available to us, and our cities need to meet our requirements in increasingly inventive ways.

What is a Smart City?

There are many definitions of what makes a ‘smart city’ or ‘intelligent city’, but nearly all of them are linked with the use of advanced information and communication technologies. We thought this definition was nicely succinct,

“A developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas; economy, mobility, environment, people, living, and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through strong human capital, social capital, and/or ICT infrastructure.”

Because it’s nice to see a few variations, here’s an alternative definition from Boyd Cohen in Fast Co.EXIST,

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint--all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

But, the themes are common. In this post, we are going to look at some of the ways cities around the world are becoming smarter, and how innovation is driving significant improvements in our quality of lives.

Mini Case-study: Vienna

Vienna cities with brains Wien © Joadi

The Fast Co.EXIST article we linked above has Vienna as one of the top 10 smart cities; it was the only one to rank in the top 10 in every smart city category: innovation city (5), regional green city (4), quality of life (1), and digital governance (8). Therefore we thought it fitting to take a closer look at the city and reveal what it is doing to make it smart, and see what we can learn from it. The one theme that comes across from the below two examples is citizen involvement, and encouraging the community to take part and be active in making their city better.

Citizens’ Solar Power Plants

Viennese citizens are encouraged to participate in the development of renewable energy in their city by investing in solar power plants that are community funded. This solves the problem faced by residences like flats where the occupants are not able to own their own solar power systems by allowing them to invest in plants used by many. And it’s clearly a success: all solar panels in the first two Citizens’ Solar Power Plants were sold out within a single week. Will projects such as this allow Vienna to use 50% renewable energy for electricity production by 2030?

aspern Vienna’s Urban Lakeside

One of Europe’s largest urban developments, aspern Vienna’s Urban Lakeside is a 240-hectare project that aims to home 20,000 people and create 20,000 jobs in the fields of service, trade and industry, science, research, and education, by 2028. It has a prime location at the centre of an economic growth region, CENTROPE, on the Vienna-Bratislava axis; Bratislava’s central station is reached within 28 minutes and Vienna airport within 15 minutes. The project involved citizens in the development of the master plan, and they continue to take an active part in what they call “City Labs”.

Are You Being Tracked?

Not every advancement in technology and innovation is seen as completely positive, and the use of tracking in cities is rightly criticized. Quite recently, there was a furor over London bins that had a rather surprising second function: smartphone tracking. “Smart” recycling bins in the City of London have been monitoring the smartphones of passers-by through recording a unique identification number, otherwise known as a MAC address. By recording the MAC address of phones with Wi-Fi enabled, “advertisers can target messages at people whom the bins recognize”. According to the article we just linked to, this technology is supposed to help advertisers customize their marketing campaigns with rather scary personalized advertising by monitoring the places you visit and your habits.

The City of London Corporation have since called for a halt on the use of smartphone tracking bins over the obvious fears of privacy; not only do people dislike being tracked without any knowledge, who else can have access to this data? The technology involved here is important and has many positive implications for the future. But it’s such a shame that the public wasn’t told about this and it was kept a secret. If there’s anything that is going to hold back a potentially useful technology, it’s a history of secrecy and public outrage.

The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge

Let’s finish this post by looking at IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge, and what it has done already to encourage cities to become smarter. The challenge is an initiative to help 100 cities over a period of three-years to address the challenges they are facing by contributing time and expertise, delivering recommendations on how to make the cities smarter and more effective. Hokkaido, Japan

Sapporo © Nkns

Sapporo, Japan.

The city of Sapporo has a goal to become the most environmentally friendly city in the world (nothing too challenging then) and IBM met with the city to create the “Sapporo Vision for the Promotion of Global Warming Countermeasures.” However, much of the scope of this initiative was re-drawn following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the city wants to move towards a “society that is not dependent on nuclear power”. Some of IBM’s major recommendations included, co-operation with other government organisations, the use of IT-based data gathering and analysis, progress in research to encourage more environmental businesses, and promotion of the importance of environmental sustainability through education.

View of Glasgow from Queens Park

View of Glasgow from Queens Park © John Lindie

Glasgow, United Kingdom.

Glasgow, despite its economic growth and urban renewal, is a city that suffers from fuel poverty, where many citizens spend more than 10 percent of their income on keeping themselves warm. IBM was tasked with helping the city meet its target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2016 and make keeping warm less of the luxury it is. They started by analyzing data and trying to understand what was causing people to be in fuel poverty. The realization they came to was that this was a community problem and would be best dealt with by improving ‘energy literacy’, helping citizens better understand how to use and buy energy efficiently. Glasgow want to become the most energy-literate city in Europe and this will require Glasgow City Council to work on a coordinated program that involves citizens working together with stakeholders and agencies, injecting cash back into the local economy.

The Importance of Community Involvement

Throughout this post, we are constantly reminded that community involvement is an essential part of making a city smarter. For a city is not just walls and infrastructure, it is the people that call the city their home. By working together, and becoming better educated in matters such as energy efficiency, we can see that to improve our quality of life, we need to improve the quality of lives around us as well. But none of this can happen unless the people in charge give citizens the chance and support they need to make their cities better.

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