Smart Steps for a Smart City

11 Jan 2018 - Hannah Kaner

Born in 1997, the term ‘Smart City’ turns twenty-one this year, but the concept first began to stir in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when advanced techniques such as data gathering, demographics modelling, aerial photography and infrared imaging led us towards a more intelligent form of urban management. So what does ‘smart’ mean to us now? And why does it continue to be so important?

The ‘Smart city’ is now associated with digital growth, and use of ICT and technology in the production, exchange, processing and response of information within the city. Its purpose is to enable the systems of the city to protect both economic and citizen health.

However, what makes a ‘Smart City’ is difficult to define. What constitutes ‘smart’?

The term tends to be used for the whole scope of ICT and technology development, but ‘smart’ is not just in the technology, street cameras, traffic lights, electric grids. ‘Smart’ is how it is used.

Managing data and responding to it effectively, both online and off, are the core elements that make up a ‘Smart City’.

Getting on the right path

Problems facing the development of a city’s ‘smart’ capabilities are complex. Some are universal, such as how to encourage citizens to adopt new and beneficial technologies into the routines they are used to. Others are more local issues, like the lack of funding needed to generate swift and meaningful change.

If we see ‘smart’ as only a target to hit, cities risk not realising the potential of the resources they already have available. They might heavily invest in new technology which struggles to interact with both citizens and data. The key, therefore, to an effective smart city strategy is to see it as both a target and a process. The long term goal of ‘smart’ can be distilled down into meaningful units of change

This requires two processes:

1. Centralised management and exchange of data, and;

2. Targeted intervention.

Firstly, the de-siloing, aggregation and organisation of a city’s data into centralised management systems. This is often a long, meticulous process requiring collaboration between key city stakeholders: businesses, services, council, citizens and infrastructure. Open data exchange is a key element of the quantitative understandings that feed into Smart City development.

This larger infrastructural evolution must go alongside change at more targeted, flexible scales of understanding, which are harder to enact. The purpose of a city is to enable its citizens to engage in civic life at their optimum potential, contributing to the local economy, supported by transport and health care. Using the data the city has to hand, a ‘Smart City’ therefore needs to enact solutions that benefit its citizens and enforce this culture of improvement.

Set your targets, achieve your goals

However, when faced with the problems above, such as low rates of adoption and lacking funds, cities often fail to effectively articulate and prioritise the problems of citizen and business stakeholders.

The main question is which digital investments will benefit the city and its citizens the most, while producing enough in ROI or savings to continue investing in the programme of improvement?

Clarity will come by combining the data-management driven strategies above with careful user research. Citizen engagement cannot be in name only, nor only in numbers or type, but a ‘smart’ approach must consider different ages, abilities, routines, touchpoints that diverse users see as functional and beneficial.

A combined and targeted research approach will make for clearly articulated problems, directed solutions, and transparent and directed benefits for particular cities and their particular citizens.

Qualitative user research should then be aligned against the business cases for development, and use this to prioritise investment into an iterative and resilient model.

The first cases should take into account what is already on offer, how swiftly the first point for development will guarantee a return on investment and then profit, and who will use it and why. A good example of this is ‘smart’ parking.

Hit the ground running

By a simple investment, such as cheap sensors installed in parking spaces across the city and well researched development, city strategists can create a simple city app that will allow residents to more effectively move through the urban space.

Apps like Google Maps or City Mapper lead the pack in terms of trip planning within the city. However, they sometimes fail to provide the information specific to a city that only its council may effectively support, such as where to target empty parking spaces closest to the destination required in real time, the ability to pay for that parking, or suggesting alternative, public transport routes that will save time or money.

Targeted parking can reduce congestion and pollution, alternative route suggestion may take users out of cars and into public transport. If combined with an ability to initiate, extend, or pay for parking, the city creates a profitable model for both citizens on the move and the city itself.

Within a ‘smart’ strategy that prioritises demand against clearly articulated business cases, the city may spin off further developments that constitute a longer return on investment. For example, using the data acquired through the app to understand which areas of the city use public transport less and why, and where might need parking expansion or better cycle paths. Sensors could be upgraded to detect bad parking and deliver fines or warnings.

Once a robust structure is in place for a case like this, it opens up more data for ‘smarter’ investment, while also either generating savings, turning profit, or contributing to the economic flow of the city area. This means that reinvested savings can be used elsewhere for improvements that take a slower pace of change. It also fills a gap in the market, while delivering clear benefits to citizens and city users. Further, this is within a scalable model that can be redeveloped for other authorities.

Within a ‘Smart City’, we need to use the data and people available to us to provide solutions that are both needed and desirable; articulated problems, defined through careful research, can and should develop into clear digital application. By developing a two-fold strategy of iterative development and reinvestment, cities can recognise their ‘smart’ capability as both a process and a goal.

Each step we take towards ‘smart’, is a smart step in itself.

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