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The new smart city – from hi-tech sensors to social innovation

Author: Tim Smedley
Published Date: 26 November 2013

This article was orginally published in the Guardian. 

If you want to know what's happening with smart cities, then look no further than Seoul. The capital of one of the world's most technologically advanced nations was an early investor in smart technology.

At last week's Smart City World Expo in Barcelona, Jong-Sung Hwang, former CIO of the Seoul metropolitan government, informed of the city's attempt to capture real-time traffic data. For years the city invested millions of dollars in sensors embedded into the road infrastructure.

"But we failed again and again," said Hwang. "It cost a lot ... but the traffic information was not correct so could not be used." In 2012, however, the city's 25,000 taxis introduced a touchcard payment system using GPS technology, effectively giving Seoul the real-time traffic information it had long craved at a fraction of the cost. "A smart city can now use smart technology and solve problems without changing the city infrastructure", said Hwang.

However, for a smart city industry worth $400bn globally, there is much more money to be made in embedding sensors than in analysing existing datasets. And while data given passively or pro-actively by citizens wielding smartphones is by far the most important smart city development of recent years, not everyone at the World Expo seemed ready to admit it.

The word "social", Ana Cocho Bermejo, COO of Citycise said, made investors run a mile. "Since the 1950s we have been talking about this idea of the city as a complex system ... the part that currently has a business model is the part related to this system: management, energy efficiency, mobility – all the smart city industry is fed into that. But the other part, which is social innovation and social engagement, they really don't know how to make a business model out of it... [citizens] are giving a lot of data, we are telling everybody a lot of things, so can we close the circle and revert it back to the citizens for the improvement of their everyday life."

There is some evidence of this starting to happen. Hanna Niemi-Hugaerts, project manager, Forum Virium Helsinki, has helped establish an Open311 API in the Finnish capital. An effective coupling of centralised smart technology and citizen participation, this builds on the US idea of a 3-1-1 phoneline to report non-emergency issues, adding a website and smartphone app with the ability to send photos.

"Cities are opening up more and more data, but the development of citizen feedback systems has not been so fast", explained Niemi-Hugaerts. "Often it disappears to this black hole called 'info@...'.". In contrast, an Open311 interface "allows citizens to send photos or update reports on anything from pot holes to traffic signs, the imagination is the limit", she said. Open311 is also an open dataset, "allowing third party developers or the citizens themselves to develop apps or services", said Niemi-Hugaerts.

The mood from industry is that is still yearns for Seoul's intelligent roads, not bottom-up solutions. Rio de Janeiro won best smart city 2013 at the World Expo, its Central Operations Centre the poster child of smart cities – a hub of 400 staff, myriad screens and an 80 square metre master screen, viewing images from the streets, a smart map of live city transport, even predictive analytics and "hot topic sensing" looking at trends and keywords used by residents in social media to try and nip problems in the bud as (or before) they occur.

Rio is the epitome of the centralised, hi-tech approach to shepherding citizens. Yet its chief of staff Pedro Paulo Carvalho told me this was no longer sufficient: "The first stage of a smart city [is] to have the basic [central] infrastructure. Now the real challenge is the second phase, to integrate those systems into daily life, to open up our data ... for citizens in a way that they can actually use it. The concept of a 'smart citizen' is one that is engaged in the decision-making process." Despite the city's awards, it still has some way to go.

There is a middle ground emerging also – the "internet of things". This is the vision of a smart city formed household by household. Kevin Ashton, founder of MIT's Auto-ID Center, gave the example of smart water meters. "About 40% of indoor water consumption is waste, it's leaks, it's leaving taps on ... if we could just capture the information about that and show it back to people who are consuming it they will waste less, it's really simple". An under-the-sink meter costing less than $100 and designed by his team will tell householders what's being used – and leaked – where. Another example saw houseplants tweeting owners when they needed watering. "

The evolution of the smart city will involve all the above. At the end of 2013, no city can truly claim to be a smart city, and it would take a complex set of collaborations to achieve that status. Centralised operations systems must engage with citizens not simply monitor them; citizen groups must question policy and the use of big data, while also contributing to it; smart sensors in streets are still needed, as are those we choose to put into out houses. An holistic approach to smart city planning seems possible, but we are not there yet. And in the defence of the major technology firms, the political infrastructure is not there yet either.

"The main challenges are not technological," said Alex Mestre, marketing director of Spain's Abertis Telecom, "we can do that pretty well. The big challenge I believe is in the political domain ... what we need is a clear indication from the municipality what has to be done, the silo barriers in the different departments have to be broke ... and a political mandate [in place] before we can roll out anything. Otherwise it will be [only] nice experiments."

In other words, the technology is already out there – but are we smart enough to use it?