A Thought Probe Series on Tomorrow’s Population, Big Data, and Personalized Predictive Analytics: Part 5, Beyond Smart Cities

Stephen DeAngelis

May 24, 2013

I borrow the tagline for this post from Dr. Tim Campbell, author of a book entitled Beyond Smart Cities. Explaining the premise of his book, Campbell writes, “To really achieve smart cities — that is to create the conditions of continuous learning and innovation — this book argues that there is a need to understand what is below the surface and to examine the mechanisms which affect the way cities learn and then connect together.” [Beyond Smart Cities] Campbell argues that the same technologies that will make cities smart will also help make the planet smarter — something, he claims, the world desperately needs. He explains:

“Over the last few decades, nations states and bumped up against real limits in their ability to solve problems in global goods. The failures on climate change and trade in Copenhagen and Durban and Doha, respectively are only the most visible of many such issues, such as environmental sustainability, peak water, and renewable energy use. All have failed to gain much traction among national governments and international organizations. At best, progress has been slow and disappointing. Yet we cannot and should not surrender our ability to tackle global goods issues until all options are given a hearing. One unexpected source of new ideas is coming from below, from cities.”

He claims his book reveals “a flowering of city-to-city exchange[s] in policy and practice that may hold promise for some global issues and many local issues of global significance.” He continues:

“Cities can never solve globally significant problems by themselves, much less pay for the costs. But they are beginning to act like self-sponsored laboratories of invention. At the same time, they are establishing a new edge in best practice that can lead to more readily adoptable standards by nation states. Perhaps more important, cities are forging a system of learning and exchange that stretches right around the world, north and south, rich and poor. As national policy makers debate intractable problems of global goods, the solutions for some problems might be popping up where we least expect them.”

I believe that Campbell is correct in his assessment that solving many of world’s most pressing challenges begins in the city. As researchers at MIT note, “In the future, cities will account for nearly 90% of global population growth, 80% of wealth creation, and 60% of total energy consumption. Developing better strategies for the creation of new cities, is therefore, a global imperative.” [City Science website] To peel the onion one more layer, if cities are important in the effort to solve many of the world’s challenges, then the people living in and governing those cities are even more important. Andrea Di Maio, a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, claims that too much attention is being given to technologies and processes and not enough attention is being given to the people involved in smart city initiatives. [“Technology Is Almost Irrelevant for Smart Cities To Succeed,” Gartner, 10 August 2012] Technology,” he writes, “is mostly irrelevant unless policy-makers, city managers, heads of department and city CIOs get the fundamentals right.” He must have realized shortly after writing that sentence that it was too constrained in the list of people that matter. He continued:

“What really matters is how different sectors (not just government) cooperate and, how they can exchange meaningful information. Of course there is technology involved, but that’s not enough to make cities smart. Cooperation requires solid governance and a roadmap that is respectful of (1) the different – and potential diverging – business objectives and timeframes of different stakeholders involved and (2) the inevitable resource constraints that affect most urban areas. Actually many people still associate smart cities to environmental sustainability and carbon footprint reduction, but the truth is that the main challenge going forward is financial sustainability and the ability to deal with an increasingly turbulent and uncertain future.”

The MIT researchers quoted above mainly discuss building new infrastructure to handle the swelling number of urban residents expected in the future. As I pointed out in Part 4 of this series, smart city initiatives must deal with existing infrastructure as well as new construction. Di Maio agrees that “greenfield” projects aren’t going to be sufficient to make cities smarter. He notes, “The vast majority of cities that need to become smart are developed in a brownfield environment. So there are major constraints as far as the physical infrastructure, the availability of budgets and how flexibly or cooperatively they can be used, the entrenched governance processes and the different ways in which city governments provide different services.” He is spot on with that assessment.

Because smart city initiatives must be applicable to the real world in which we live, their implementation is going to require cooperation and partnerships amongst an array of stakeholders. It’s going to be messy, but necessary. Di Maio explains some of the challenges:

“In some cities most public services are entirely operated by the city government: there are government-owned energy companies, transportation companies, water management companies, telcos, or they are even part of the city government itself. In other cases, city government is just a payer or a supervisor of services provided by external service providers. In either case, the roadmap to make – say – transportation smarter in conjunction with public safety is very different. If the city government owns both, it can ideally establish a common program or a common enterprise architecture or a common interoperability framework that both domains (transportation and public safety) will apply when cooperating on their smart objectives. If the city owns only one of the services and outsources the other, the cooperation must be built through a more careful negotiation process, where vendor management and governance play a much greater role. So, while technologies that can be applied to capture, process, exchange information, to control sensors and actuators, to analyze and visualize performances are pretty much the same around the world, the roles that city governments play in each and every one of the domains that must cooperate to make the city smart vary a lot. Early focus on how these roles can contribute to help or hinder smart city objectives is far more important than looking at technologies and vendors.”

Concerning the changing urban landscape, analysts at Pike Research state, “The social, economic, environmental, and engineering challenges of this transformation will shape the 21st century.” [“Smart Cities“] They continue:

“While there are many innovative pilot projects and small-scale developments that are looking at the smart city from a holistic perspective, there are no examples yet of a smart city th
at supports hundreds of thousands, never mind millions, of people. The smart city offers a coherent vision for bringing together innovative solutions that address the issues facing the modern city, but there are many challenges still to be faced. If the smart city is to truly become a blueprint for urban development, then a number of technical, financial, and political hurdles will need to be met.”

For those interested in this topic, Pike Research offers a downloadable report about smart cities. The Smart Cities project, whose goal “is to create an innovation network between governments and academic partners leading to excellence in the domain of the development and take-up of e-services,” also offers a number of downloadable publications on its website. All smart city initiatives rely on the collection and analysis of big data. Rather than seeing this as a “big brother” effort, MIT’s Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland believes that a win-win situation can be established that benefits individuals as well as their communities. As you will see from the following video, he also explains why targeted marketing has such a promising future and why that future is intimately connected to smart city initiatives.

I share the sense of optimism displayed by Professor Pentland. Big data analytics have the potential to change individual lives as well as cities and the planet. And if Professor Pentland is correct, and I believe he is, most of us will be voluntarily and cooperatively involved in making our cities and the world better places in which to live.

If this series of discussions about smart cities has convinced you of one thing, it should have be that the collection and analysis of big data is critical. It should also be apparent that no one company is capable of addressing all of the challenges or providing all of the insights that will be necessary to achieve smart neighborhoods, smart cities, smart regions, smart nations, and/or a smart planet. That is why I’m suggesting that an open-architecture framework be created that can integrate information from diverse databases, apply big data analytics and artificial intelligence reasoning, and develop reference ontologies for the myriad of activities that combine to help explain the complex structure of neighborhoods, cities, regions, states, and, eventually, the planet.

I’m not suggesting that such a framework will be easy to create in the short-term. I suspect that it will take decades to develop properly so that actionable insights can be drawn from the repository of knowledge that will be created. As the knowledge repository is populated, I believe this framework can be built in such a way that it provides incremental benefits to neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations. Because the knowledge repository will be linked to ontologies and artificial intelligence technologies, the system itself will provide new insights, discover new relationships, and research and test promising hypotheses that could significantly improve how people live and interact.

There is much we don’t know about cities and the data needed to help us know more is not readily available in some cases. For example, author Robert Neuwith recently discussed on NPR’s TED Radio Hour why squatters and slums are going to be critical to the planet’s future in the decades ahead. Neuwith believes these slums represent the “cities of the future” because by 2050 one out of every three people living on the planet will be living in them. Neuwith notes, that while it may appear to outsiders that slums are lawless areas filled with poverty and crime, there actually are rules and organizations to be found within these “cities.” Understanding the relationships in these areas (as well as their relationship to more formal urban networks) won’t be easy because, by their very nature, most of them are “off the grid.” Only the kind of framework I suggest above can help provide the kind of bottom-up insights that will help make the lives of those billions of people better. Improve their lives and you improve the world.