THE BLOG

Smart Towns, Dumb Cities

22/07/2014 11:24 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 10:59 BST

Smaller smart technology implementations have better success

There's a revolution occurring in how our urban spaces are managed, but success is less likely to come from grandiose projects and more likely to derive from a series of small improvements. According to a report by The Economist, some of the most anticipated smart city projects, including Songdo and Masdar, built from the ground up to be model smart cities, are now considered failed sterile urban enclaves. Even large smart-city upgrades, such as New York's wireless public-safety network and Rio de Janeiro's vaunted Intelligent Operations Centre, haven't lived up to expectations.

However, all hope is not to be lost. Smart cities are still attainable, but we're learning from experience that the big bang approach isn't always best. Cities still can (and should) leverage the explosion of digital technology to improve residents' quality of life. The availability of programmable devices, huge quantities of data, and mobile technology, provide councils with many different opportunities to improve the efficiency and quality of city services.

Smaller smart technology implementations are providing the most successful case studies. From Canada to Poland, these smaller smart town and city projects are reporting a positive return on investment and are becoming good examples for larger cities like London to follow.

For example, when the Town of Olds in Alberta Canada discovered that 39% of its water couldn't be accounted for, they strategically placed acoustic sensors to analyze sound patterns, detecting new, evolving and pre-existing leaks automatically. The cost benefits were realized immediately.

Officials with the San Antonio Municipal Court System in Texas opened up audio and video enabled kiosks in three neighborhood locations where residents could conveniently take care of routine Municipal Court offenses, converse with a judge and pay any fines owed. In Poland, mobile ticketing terminals for public transportation enable on-board ticket purchases without cash using a debit card, improving the flow of traffic and rider satisfaction.

In all these cases, there was a strong pre-defined goal that was bounded with measurable results. Since they were smaller projects, it was easier to get buy-in from governmental bodies involved, and the benefits were realized quickly, resulting in a strong return on investment.

Yet even smaller projects are not without their challenges, some of which emanate from the physical limitations of the existing infrastructure. For example, there are water pipes in London that do not have enough room to install a simple smart water meter. Other problems arise due to difficulties defining priorities, the sheer number of components, and the bureaucracy involved, such as the need to receive approvals from several health and safety boards that are each responsible for different regions. Due to such complexities, it is estimated that a project to extend the pedestrian crossing times at intersections throughout the UK to adjust to the aging population could take as long as 20 years.

Some challenges are more easily overcome than others. For instance, in all of these examples, sharing data is a key requirement for success. In order for a council's smart technology projects to bear fruit, there needs to be openness and accessibility of data as well as common structures and formatting, standardised ways of representing data and information; and clarity around data privacy, security and integrity. The use of robust software development and integration platforms is often the best and easiest way to achieve these goals.

But perhaps most importantly, smart technology projects need the backing of a strong political sponsor. Such a sponsor can help spearhead the project, getting it past various political and budgetary hurdles that are bound to arise. Just as London's self-service bike rental scheme, known as 'Boris Bikes', succeeded in large part as a result of Mayor Boris Johnson's strong support.

The best way to help London benefit from smart technology is to implement bounded projects, each with a clear objective, and the backing of a strong sponsor. Technically, the data involved should be easily shared by different entities within the project, yet kept secure. Thus project by project, the right technology can be put in place to increase government efficiency and to improve the quality of life for its residents.