Without Smart, Connected People There Are No Smart Cities

Driverless cars, smart homes, streetcars and high-speed rail, skyscrapers clad in solar panels – there are a lot of visions out there as to what smart, connected cities will look like. Sometimes, though, it seems these visions forget one important element – people. For all the gee whiz, self-aware technology one can conjure, too often the future cities we imagine are devoid of real people doing real things.

Most people, it turns out, are not single, metropolitan 20- and 30-somethings taking Uber to their job at an organic kale distributor. Most people are not wealthy 1 percenters. Rather, most people are ordinary; harried parents shuttling between work and soccer practice, the grocery store and the doctor’s office; elderly people struggling to keep up in a world of increasing complexity; young children who are growing up connected. Most people are just that – people. People working to get by. People trying to carve out a modicum of success while maintaining some degree of wellness.

“Super-intelligent infrastructure serves little purpose if there is no one around to put it to use.”
Photo Credit : Shutterstock

These are the people for whom the smart, connected city must be designed. As the Internet of Everything evolves, civic leaders have the opportunity to foster the development of cities and regions into places that exceed the average citizen’s needs, to bring the disenfranchised into the fold, and to engage those for whom connectivity is a fact of life.

Cities have always been places were society coalesces in a (mostly) united effort to raise all boats. Smart cities will be no different. The methods, policies and technologies used to achieve that aim may be new, but what is today called a smart city is merely a place that is ahead of the curve.

“Cities without people aren’t cities at all. That’s why a truly smart and connected city begins with people who are smart and connected.”


Beyond Wearable

The vanguard of the connected citizen is without question the smartphone. An unimaginable amount of information is accessible to a majority of the world thanks to a device that fits in a pocket. Going forward, the smartphone will be just one of a myriad of things that boast connectivity and intelligence.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Cisco CEO John Chambers and Executive Vice President Wim Elfrink argue that creating smart cities means connecting everything, as well as everyone.

“The Internet of Everything is already revolutionising the way our cities operate, creating a more dynamic global economy and also bringing new, richer experiences to citizens. Soon, we will live in a world where everything — and everyone — can be connected to everything else. Streets will be safer, homes will be smarter, citizens will be healthier and better educated.

The Internet of Everything will change how we work — more information, better decisions, more agile supply chains, more responsive manufacturing, and increased economic value. The foundation of the city of the future will be the Internet of Everything, and those embracing this technology are leading the way.”

Amid the great urban migration of the 21st century, cities are going to find themselves facing unprecedented demand. Estimates are that by the end of the 2050 perhaps the most fundamental shift in human civilisation will have occurred — namely that more than 70 percent of the global population will live in a city.

This shift means cities are going to be taxed more than ever before as they struggle to provide adequate resources and services to their inhabitants. Concurrently, though, the world is growing increasingly data-rich and hyper-connected. This is what will make the transition into global urbanization not only bearable but, if done correctly, a time of unbridled prosperity and wellness.

Health Wearables

Already, on the wellness front, wearable technology is providing consumers with new and sometimes better means of monitoring health. Fitness and activity trackers have so far led the wearable device market. Though not particularly sophisticated, such devices serve as a microcosm of the smart city in that they provide users with better data that ultimately allow them to make better decisions – in this case about their own well-being.

Indeed, last year a study by the Pew Internet Research Foundation found that 46 percent of people who track their activity — either via wearable technology or simply writing things down — have changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone for whom they provide care.

As a means for managing and improving one’s health, wearable technology is off to a promising start. But, as Government Technology reported, today’s nascent wearable technology market is confusing, fragmented and prone to consumer ambivalence.

“Most of today’s wearables are too whimsical to be taken seriously by the medical community,” wearable technology consultant Lisa Suennen told Government Technology staff writer Colin Wood.

“Doctors don’t care how many steps their healthy patients are taking. They want an effective method for monitoring at-risk patients, so they can prevent readmission or catch a problem before it becomes a bigger problem.”

To counter that, companies are rolling out a slew of new devices that provide ever-deeper insights into the user’s health. Headed to market are devices to monitor cardiac activity, blood and tissue condition, sleep apnea — even eye movement and the speed at which a person is moving. Such devices would, at least in theory, allow doctors to have real-time access to a host of patient health indicators. Whether people are ready to wirelessly stream such personal data remains to be seen.

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But leveraging technology for wellness is only part of what it means to be a smart, connected citizen. Kanumury Radhesh, who leads the Global Entrepreneur Program for IBM India and South Asia, recently wrote that a smart city “uses technology to enhance quality, well-being and safety of citizens. It provides means to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens and enterprises. And lastly, it helps city authorities to reduce costs and resource consumption for their cities.”

How, though, do smart cities accomplish these things? Adding intelligence to infrastructure is one thing, folding citizens themselves into an intelligent city network is quite another. Health is a part of the equation, but so is transportation, energy, water, and waste. So too are other elements including housing, education, environment and employment — a lot of what FutureStructure defines as soft infrastructure; the policy, legal and regulatory framework cities must consider in order to create a place that not only works better in terms of infrastructure but ultimately helps make the city a better place in which to live.

The truth is that a city home to smart and connected citizens is one built using hundreds or thousands of small pieces that together are transformative.

Photo via Mobility Trends

Take the city of London. The U.K. capital is home to many smart city innovations, including the Pedestrian Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique, or Pedestrian SCOOT. The technique involves passively incorporating people into the intelligent infrastructure by leveraging custom video technology that monitors the volume of pedestrians intending to cross the street. Based on that volume of people, the system automatically adjusts the traffic signal timing — longer for more pedestrians crossing, shorter for fewer. The system can also cancel a request to cross — activated when someone pushes the familiar crossing button — when it detects that the person has already crossed or has left.

Leon Daniels, managing director of London’s Surface Transport, said in a statement that “these new trials of pedestrian detection technology will allow our traffic signals to become even more intelligent, bringing huge benefits to those waiting to cross the road where there is heavy pedestrian demand.”

Huge benefits, yes, but such a system is a sliver in the far larger smart, connected city. And it’s not just megalopolises doing the smart city dirty work. ., has been perhaps the frontrunner when it comes to how to bake connectivity into a city. In fact, the city was recently praised by President Obama, ahead of his State of the Union address, as a model for building a citywide, high-speed fiber network with gigabit-per-second Internet speed. Chattanooga, the president said, is “unleashing a tornado of innovation.”

Photo via TheGigTank

Five years ago, Chattanooga’s local utility upgraded its electrical grid with fiber optics and began offering Internet access directly to the public. With robust and super-fast connectivity, Chattanooga has transformed its economy by attracting high-tech companies and transformed itself into a global smart city leader.

Said former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield:

“How do you make a city grow? Make it the best place it can be for the people who already live there.”

Building a smart city requires the understanding that cities exist as complex, interconnected systems. Technology such as the sort of fiber network in place in Chattanooga, along with (but not limited to) sensors, location intelligent, and analytics are the key to unlocking the potential of that interconnected nature. There are endless possibilities when everything is connected.

Each of those possibilities, however, depend on people. Intelligent transportation systems — a network of automated tolls, smart parking and driverless vehicles — serve no purpose if people aren’t engaged. Homes and buildings that automatically adjust room temperature, lighting and window tinting make sense only if people inhabit those places. Even garbage bins that communicate to garbage trucks that they need to be emptied are pointless without people to fill them.

Understanding how to create smart cities is only half the battle. The other half is figuring out how such cities can, as Littlefield said, remake themselves into better places to live for the people who live in them.

The Internet of Everything is the conduit between the built environment and the people who exist within it. The Internet of Everything is how people can leverage the connections within city systems to make the data those connections yield meaningful. When a city is a source of meaningful data, people can make better decisions about not only their health, but about how they drive, what they eat, how they consume natural resources, where they send their children to school, etc. Policymakers, meanwhile, can improve their decision-making when crafting (or eliminating) regulations, laws and ordinances.

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Tamir Borensztajn, formerly executive director of Public Sector Innovation at Infor and currently vice president of Discovery Strategy at EBSCO Information Services, believes such smart, connected cities offer “new ways to make our lives as citizens smarter, more efficient and more informed — while, at the same time, delivering cost savings to government. Connected infrastructure — from toll roads, to parking places to utility meters — delivers real-time ‘actionable’ information around costs, condition, usage and utilisation to citizens and government alike. Citizens can instantaneously find parking or cut back on electricity usage, while government can allocate the right resources at the right time to charge fees, deliver services, and manage public infrastructure.”


All About That Data

Global investment in connectivity is going like gangbusters. Technology firms are spending billions of dollars to lay the groundwork for their versions of the future. Meanwhile, at the consumer level, technology that was once firmly planted in science fiction can be had for relative pennies. Unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors of every sort, powerful microcontrollers and of course the pocket-sized supercomputers we all carry are helping to quickly transform society from one that goes online to one that exists online.

For baby boomers and Gen Xers who lived through the transition from analog to digital, regarding with some skepticism our current, collective metamorphosis into a civilisation wherein everything and everyone is connected is understandable. Look through any technology periodical and you’ll no doubt encounter well-written handwringing over, for example, the privacy and security implications of the post-millennial world.

But for those born after the advent of Prodigy and Bulletin Board Systems, there are no “olden days” to look back upon for perspective. Being online and connected isn’t something to adapt to, it simply is. And the cities — not the suburbs — are increasingly proving to be the places where a digital existence works best. Cities are the places where data is and will be transformed into actionable intelligence.

Data underpins everything. So much of it is generated hourly it’s almost pointless to illustrate anecdotally. The “old” standby statistic that 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute is already obsolete. Presently the number has tripled to 300 hours every minute. While much of that video is footage of hilarious animals, mash-ups of ’80s cartoons and pop songs, and Russian dashcams, perhaps the most interesting aspect is that it is data being more or less manually entered by human beings. But now, as cheap sensors proliferate, literally everything can start generating data autonomously.

Our things generate so much data, the problem is now what to do with it all. It’s also why for millennials and beyond the threats around security and privacy don’t seem quite so worrisome — sure, a person may have posted some sensitive information on Facebook, but so did a billion other people. The goal shouldn’t only be how to protect data and build a wall around it, the goal should also be make it meaningful.

Forward-looking cities have realised they need citizens to make the most of data. In many of the more innovative places, things like hackathons are already passé. Open data is a given. The Internet of Everything is the next great leap. Roads, bridges, toll plazas, traffic signals, water mains, the electrical grid, our homes and appliances — these are all being made to connect and create data. Now, people are too, either by smartphone or by wearable technology or, as many predict, by devices that are implantable, ingestible or even tattooable.

The world is changing. A new urban migration is under way and cities will be the places where ideas, infrastructure and technology intersect. Smart, connected cities will be those that first find ways to encourage a population of smart, connected people. As people begin to embrace the reality of becoming nodes on a network already too vast to conceptualise, a part of the Internet of Everything, cities will be the places the data produced possesses the most transformative potential.

“Healthier citizens, more intelligent transit, smarter utilities, renewable energy and reduced waste — it’s a future that’s possible, perhaps even probable, if intelligent infrastructure is built in service of, rather than in spite of, the people who live in cities.”


This feature originally appeared in GovTech by Chad Vander Veen.


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