• Ron McMahon

What makes Smart Cities smart

Smart cities have been talked about for years. They sound cool – like places where we ought to be living. Saving energy. Living in clean air. Having instant access to information about anything, anytime.

I have attended numerous presentations featuring beautifully rendered images of the cities of the future, accompanied by equally inspiring descriptions of the possibilities of these smart metropolises… visionary stuff. But you know what? I have never actually seen a smart city that looks like these images.

Did you know that Frost & Sullivan estimates the smart city market to be worth US$1.5 trillion by 2019? Yes, that’s right – trillion. But we can’t build all-new smart cities by 2019, can we? Of course not. So, what is a smart city if not the gleaming vision that we see in futurists’ pictures? Well, it’s a city that exists today. It’s Rome, London, New York and Sydney – cities that have grown organically over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years – but smarter. So, how do you go about transforming today’s city into the smart city of tomorrow? Cities are largely built around the services that provide amenity to inhabitants. Smart cities, on the other hand, are built around smart services that are actually of use. The aim of a smart city is to provide urban services of high quality that perform well. An effective smart city will allow inhabitants to engage with their environment more closely than ever before, and will assist in reducing community costs and resource consumption. It is about making all of the things that go into our cities smart. It’s really not about grandiose visions; it is about practical needs.

Take, for example, the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), a network of everyday things – from microwave ovens to cars to clock radios – that all talk to each other and consumers via the internet. As examples, the IoT allows consumers to turn on their heating while on the way home, or to have their vehicles alert them to danger or close objects. Future uses may include medical monitoring and automation in a variety of fields. This provides amenity to consumers, connecting their world for efficiency, quality of service, and engagement with their communities and service providers. Another example is the sharing economy. Uber – what I consider to be a smart service provider for the smart city – has become the world’s largest ride share company, not because someone built a new smart city, but because technology enabled the company to create a practical solution for a practical problem in any city, anywhere (subject to laws). Ditto Airbnb, which is now the world’s largest provider of accommodation. Both of these offerings are based on the concept of the sharing economy, in which people who own an asset (such as a car or a house) offer the use of these assets to others who need them. Let’s consider the metaphor of a computer or a smart phone. Each has multiple components that, on their own, aren’t so useful; they are basically just chunks of silicone.

What they need is a way of working together. They need an operating system (OS). With an OS, apps can run, which are what make a smart phone so useful. So, why not adopt the same approach for a city? Imagine that you have an OS that provides the platform for service providers to run apps that would transform their businesses from traditional 20thcentury outlets into online offerings, hugely increasing amenity for city inhabitants. Imagine an air-conditioning maintenance service provider using an app that runs on a smart-city OS, allowing the company to communicate with customers online, sell services, coordinate manpower and install low-cost monitoring so that they can keep an eye on their customers’ air conditioning to prevent problems occurring. Or imagine a restaurant chain that could monitor the freezer temperature in its 400 premises and automatically dispatch an engineer with a freezer van to rescue valuable stock before anyone knew that there was a problem. Smart cities are not the cities of tomorrow; they are the cities of today that run a smartcity operating system.

By Ben Churchill, CEO, Urbanise.com Limited

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