The big tech firms are wrong. We must build smart cities from the ground up

A utopian vision? The electric power control panel for the smart city project at Kashiwanoha in Kashiwa city, suburban Tokyo. Image: Getty.

Kurtis McBride is the CEO and co-founder of Miovision, a company which provides transport data management systems.  He thinks that the big tech firms are doing smart cities all wrong.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen some of the world’s biggest technology companies, including the likes of Cisco and IBM, jump on board the “smart cities” bandwagon. There have been calls for major overhauls to municipal IT systems in order to connect everything from parking meters to fire trucks to public transportation. These were grand visions aimed at transforming our cities into technological utopias.

In most places, however, putting those visions into practice simply is not practical. The reality is when we talk about implementing “smart city” technology, we need to think about starting small and building from the ground up. Look at the example of the Internet of Things in an individual home. Almost no one has built a George Jetson house where everything is connected and automated – but many, many people have homes with smart TVs, automated thermostats and, coming soon, refrigerators that alert them when they’re out of milk.

There are several reasons why the big tech firms’ utopian smart city visions are impractical. First of all, those types of top-down implementations are extremely expensive. As economies have slowed, government budgets have shrunk. Cities are focused on maintaining basic services like trash collection and law enforcement, not installing supercomputers and new networks.

Second, most cities already have some degree of IT infrastructure in place. They may have mainframes dating back decades that still support basic functions.

A public works department may have sensors monitoring storm drains for clogs. The parks department may have an automated system for reserving playground shelters for special events. The police department may already have GPS tracking installed on squad cars. These types of legacy systems – the things folks at Cisco and IBM would like to replace with a comprehensive citywide IT infrastructure – are still extremely valuable. As great as it would be to institute a top-to-bottom overhaul, it’s just not practical.

Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future and author of 2013’s “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest of a New Utopia,” talks about how smart cities will develop using the analogy of a mainframe vs. the web. He writes:

“These model smart cities are like mainframes where everything's going to a central place. There's one suite of software that dictates how everything works and can be very carefully engineered. But our ‘smart’ cities are going to look much more like the web, where there's going to be a lot of things deployed by individual decision, talking to each other through open standards in very ad hoc, loosely knit ways.”

That’s just good urban planning. When cities plan growth, they start with an open grid, and people customize the different pieces that they’re in charge of. The result is a complex and vibrant system instead of a controlled, hierarchical one, says Townsend.

Instead of building the smart city of our dreams, let’s start with a smarter city that uses digital technology to enhance the quality of service delivered to residents, reduce costs and resource consumption and better engage with residents.

We’ve already seen good examples of this. Cities have built apps with live public transit information to make it easier to use bus and train systems. They have apps to monitor and control utilities in real time. There are apps that people can use to send real-time feedback about city performance.

Cities will need more of these. Our cities are growing faster than ever, which puts more stress on existing infrastructure. Budgets can’t keep pace with maintenance and replacement demands, yet infrastructure is mandatory to support healthy, vibrant communities.

Cities also need to think about how to capitalise on existing infrastructure and capacity. Transportation management systems are a great example. Many cities have torn up streets and sidewalks to lay fiber to create new networks: that’s expensive and disruptive.

A better alternative would be to install hardware into traffic cabinets that connects the signals to the cloud so they can be managed and monitored remotely in real time. Then, that network can later be a backbone for additional applications.

That’s a perfect example of starting small and building up that makes the development of a smarter city possible. Start with physical infrastructure. Connect it to a network. And provide the open data so innovative minds can develop the applications that improve life for residents.

Or you could rip out everything that’s already there and start from scratch with a multibillion-dollar smart city project.

Which of those options sounds smart to you?

Kurtis McBride is the CEO and co-founder of the transport data management firm Miovision.


To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.

Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.