No flying cars or Jetson houses: Why technology needs to drive prudent services in smarter cities
Stretched budgets, growing urban populations and post-pandemic pressure demand new thinking.
There is a danger when people start talking about smart cities that too much attention is focused on the technology. While there is certainly plenty of debate around 5G providers, IOT infrastructures, AI and public cloud, the real motivation for smart cities is improved services for citizens at a reduced cost. In the past, that very statement would have been considered an oxymoron, but today technology is enabling smart city projects to break down traditional barriers and set new, ambitious goals.
According to the UN, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, while the COVID-19 pandemic has piled a huge amount of pressure onto local authorities and service providers to maintain levels of service provision despite depleted capital. There has never been a more opportune moment for smart city projects to stand up and deliver on the promises and expectations of citizens. From reducing crime, improving sanitation and transport efficiency, through to boosting business opportunities and creating jobs, our research has found that smart city initiatives have their work cut out. Expectations are high, but not always unreasonable. The question is, how can city leaders prioritise and then meet those expectations?
It’s certainly a challenge. Citizens are expecting smart cities to reduce the cost of living (29%), improve environmental sustainability and transportation (29% and 28% respectively) and yet deliver efficient, reliable services and cut crime (both 27%). There is also an expectation, particularly in some cities such as Zurich and Dubai, that this should be achieved within a tight budget.
The problem smart city initiatives have is focus. Do city leaders reduce costs and save public money or do they focus on making people’s lives more comfortable? For many cities it probably won’t be possible to do both, so inevitably there will be some trade-offs. While 35% of businesses in Amsterdam, for example, want new market opportunities through open government data, citizens want improved recycling and transportation, so how do authorities rank objectives and prioritise? Getting the positioning right from the outset is key, certainly in allaying any fears, as over half of citizens in the survey (52% on average but as much as 84% in Mumbai) believe that the growth of smart technologies will exacerbate existing social inequalities in their city. Leaders will have to work closely with partners and have visibility of data to ensure this doesn’t become the case.
On the flip-side, over a third of citizens on average are open to paying more taxes in return for smart city benefits, with half of citizens on average willing to share more data. A further 43% are willing to pay for services. What all citizens want is prudent but vastly improved services and urban experiences, but inevitably, not everyone can and will help pay for it. This is where city leaders have to be careful to not inadvertently introduce tiered levels of service that reinforce societal divides.
The business trickle-down effect
The numbers shift dramatically where businesses are concerned, with 69% claiming they will share more data, 60% claiming they will pay for services and 52% claiming they will pay more taxes. Certainly, businesses feel they have a lot to gain from smart cities. As well as access to open government data – Amsterdam, Paris and London in particular believe this is important, with over a third of businesses attracted to its market potential – businesses stand to gain from increased computing capabilities and, more importantly, fast and ubiquitous broadband.
Robust digital infrastructures are attractive for inward investment and have certainly been a prerequisite for large tech firms when it comes to establishing new office, manufacturing and R&D locations. Attracting large tech firms can also stimulate local innovation, a statement which some executives, in cities such as Amsterdam (44%), Paris (38%) and London (38%), would agree with. Less so execs in areas such as Frankfurt and Zurich (both 22%).
Of course, you don’t need a large tech firm in your city to drive local smart initiatives. Cities do need partners and it doesn’t make sense to re-invent the wheel if a solution already exists, but sometimes it won’t. That’s where cities need good local partners to innovate and that’s an opportunity. A good example of this is Copenhagen, where public-private partnerships are created to solve specific issues. For example, to measure air quality, the city has convinced Google to let its Street View car moonlight as an air-quality meter.
The trickle-down for citizens is naturally important. A more thriving smart city programme will lead to more employment opportunities, while improved infrastructures should, in theory at least, lead to more viable smart solutions for citizens. Then it comes back to priorities again. How can cities capture this in a roadmap? Where are the measurable wins and what are the longer-term objectives? Each city will have its own particular challenges, but some challenges can have the same goals. For example, environmental sustainability, which is high on the list of priorities for Frankfurt and Stockholm, works in tandem with the need for more efficient and sustainable transport. These are achievable aims.
Less so, perhaps, is the wish for greater affordability. Post-COVID, budgets will be stretched and services will suffer. Cities across Europe are seeing reduced incomes from sources such as property rates and car parks. Traditional revenue streams are being challenged. The need for automation is therefore significant. IOT networks, AI-analytics, 5G and superfast broadband have a huge role to play in helping cities come to terms with an immediate future, where more is needed for less, and, as with any public-facing body, good, regular and honest communication is absolutely essential.
So, what have we learned from our research? Urban citizens and businesses will demand a lot from the smart city initiatives their municipal authorities are pursuing. Whatever the technologies used to deliver new services, residents expect the outcomes to be greater efficiency and reliability of services. Cities need to be cleaner, more sustainable, safer and more innovative. It’s not a bad vision. The challenge now is how cities can balance budgets, while trying to deliver services that will cost them less in the long run? How do they prioritise and, more importantly, how do they manage the expectations of both citizens and businesses? It may be a small mercy that citizens are being realistic and not dreaming of flying cars, but whichever way you look at it, city leaders have a tough task ahead.