Fantastic Cities and Where to Find Them

Smart cities are expected to reach a market worth of over $750 billion by 2020.

As a Gen X-er, I am a self-confessed avid movie addict raised on the likes of Star Wars, Blade Runner, and countless re-runs of 1950s sci-fi B moves on Sunday afternoon TV.

Not surprisingly, I am fascinated by the concept of “smart cities” and the exciting possibilities they herald. But what exactly is a smart city anyway? It's tempting to imagine a sprawling city scene from one of those sci-fi movies filled with neon lights and video screens attached to colossal high rise buildings, autonomous cars, flying drones, "Tesla" travel tubes, and robots serving our every need? However, I am seeing more down-to-earth examples cropping up in real life across the globe today.

Smart cities are still very much in their infancy, bringing a huge variance of use cases, but for me it all boils down to a plain and simple objective: improving the welfare of the citizen, all of them; from the baby boomers who may not be so tech savvy right through to the digital natives of Gen Z.

Things are never that simple and smart cities are often cited as “wicked” problems - I have heard this phrase quoted in several talks about smart cities. A wicked problem, according to Wikipedia, is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The word "wicked" meaning resistance to resolution, rather than super arch-villainy and sometimes the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Could the future of analytics lead to innovative smart cities? Qlik's Adam Mayer thinks so:

As my father, who worked for IBM, used to say "it's like punching a bag of crap,” a.k.a. you flatten one area, another lump will appear somewhere else.

The issue is that with so many possibilities in play and so many stakeholders to satisfy in conceiving a smart city: what it is, who is it for, who owns what and who pays for what, are all elements that can quickly become a tangled mess. However there is cause to believe these 21st century wicked problems can be tamed.

When tackled with a big problem my father will always ask, "How do you eat an elephant?" I reply, "start at the toe nails.” I believe that those smart cities most likely to succeed are those that start off on small byte sized chunks, maybe focusing on one area, which once completed can then be built upon.

Some examples that I have read about are small projects focused on specific areas, such as starting with broadband and wi-fi infrastructure, upgrading street lighting, putting sensors on waste management systems, traffic lights and parking bays to building management and even safe parks. There are too many factors to cover in a single blog, so over my next few blogs I will delve deeper to discover what exactly makes a smart city. These small steps are the foundations of smart cities, some will win and others will fail, but from these humble foundations we can start to see what the future holds.

The data amassed from all these sensors will yield fascinating insights and can be used to tackle broad topics from saving energy and costs, to decreasing air pollution, to improving traffic flows for both vehicles and pedestrians and so much more. The issue of security and privacy is top of mind for most citizens, and changing regulations will be key.

If used correctly we can take off the 3D glasses and start to see those cities emerging from movie land to real life, providing clean, efficient living and working spaces assisted by tech that not only improves the citizen welfare but could even save lives. That’s got to be a smart thing, wouldn’t you agree?


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