Smart City Q&A pt. 4: Stuart Cowan, chief scientist, Smart Cities Council Partner, Autopoiesis LLC

What is a Smart City? The Business Dictionary uses a very broad definition to define the Smart City as:  “A developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas; economy, mobility, environment, people, living and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through strong human capital, social capital, and /or ICT infrastructure.”  (Emphasis added)  Does it make more sense to talk first about the Digitally Smart City or even the Digitally Smart Municipal/Regional Government?

Smart Growth emerged from New Urbanism in the 90s and was the idea that traditional town planning going back to earlier European planning had a lot of desirability. They have walkability – because they were built before cars – mixed use, store fronts with housing above, etc. Smart Growth was about adapting these ideas for the 21st century…not sprawling out, having denser cores, connecting to transit and giving everyone mobility and opportunity. These are all good things but different to the key piece of the Smart City.

The “smart” of the Smart City is the digital side, the “smart” is around data, it is around sensing the environment in new ways; it is around providing services that are digitally enabled; it is around apps; it is around citizen engagement [using digital technology] and all of that. But beyond saying that it’s data, it’s software, it’s hardware, it’s sensors. What this all adds up to, based on the Council’s work all over the world in Europe, North America, Africa, and the Middle East, is a variety of ideas coalescing in different ways. But what I would say for the council, to be a Smart City means you’re using the digital technologies in the service of city-led initiatives around livability, workability and sustainability. This is really critical, you have to start with urban planning and the citizens and government leadership view of: what is our city now; what is our vision for the city of how do we want to meet our everyday needs effectively; how do we want to become a carbon free city; how do we become a resilient city in the face of various social stresses; how can we be the city that thrives for the long term.

So, start with the tools and technologies; and, of course, at the Council we want the tools and technology because that is what we are all about. But, what we keep emphasizing to our clients and our partner companies is that a Smart City is still about people experiencing a very high quality of life; it’s about inclusivity; it’s about compassion; it’s about everybody fitting into the city, everybody having the chance for government services and doing all of that within increasing constraints of climate change, water scarcity, air pollution and so on. So it’s about the Smart City built on the sustainable city or the resilient city but digitally enabled. It is about accelerating a city’s own preferred vision.

What is the necessary base, the infrastructure, the leadership, the governance model needed to realize the Smart City?

 Good question. Frist, I would refer you to the Smart Cities Council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide: The planning manual for building tomorrow’s cities today, ( which provides a comprehensive resource as cities explore their readiness. It is a tool to assess their readiness level to become a fully integrated Smart City. And I will tell you that no city in the world is a Smart City at this stage. It is going to be a long journey and actually will evolve as a concept. Even if a city was a profoundly Smart City, the pace of technological innovation, the pace of social change and the change in environmental constraints mean that a city will continue to adapt and evolve rapidly. In brief, think of this as being a journey to being a Smart City; it a journey of at least 10 to 20 years and requires many components. The first requirement is a champion or a small group of champions within the city government. Ultimately, the Smart City involves the things their departments control directly as well as the other things that private sector providers control; but, it ultimately begins with the city’s vision and then moves to control private sector providers. So it starts with a city champion, a mayor ideally, or a city commissioner or a councillor.

We have found that each city is a bit different. A mayor can be weak or in a strong position, a city council may be high level policy making bodies only or, as is the case in Portland Oregan, city council members may have direct control over specific departments. The key is to have a champion at or near the top of organizational control, someone who is really in the working of the city. This someone may run the transportation department or be the chief information officer, which is often a good move because they influence all the other departments in terms of the knowledge, data and information available on the city. That is the starting point

The second piece is being able to create a Smart City road map. The champion or group begins to broaden their influence within city government and begins to engage their peers. What you need to do is build the cross references across city departments. A Smart City ultimately has all the functional components becoming smarter and working across silos. The Transportation Department actually talks to the IT Department and the IT Department talks to the various Energy, Education and Safety Departments and so forth. These departments begin to create a shared vision of how each department can be smarter and digitally enabled with a much deeper view of the city and with knowledge of the kinds of sensors and data software services that can turn that data into meaningful visuals. This is not just an excel spreadsheet but very striking “dashboards” that lets different departments really visualize their city moment-to-moment.

So, each department develops a vision of how they can be smarter – not for the sake of firing up some gadgets or to have some cool software – but for the sake of meeting citizens’ needs, providing government services more efficiently and meeting environmental goals. As departments begin to think in this way, spurred on by the leadership team, they begin to cross silos so that they can share data, so that they can access data across multiple departments, so that they can begin to create an interface.

For example, think about a smart energy grid not as one-way transmission from one huge power plant through transmission lines to city hall or you house but as a grid that is fully interactive…think of lots of other smaller energy sources feeding into that grid including solar panels at the building scale, think of smart meters inside buildings monitoring energy use where you might pay different amounts depending on the time of day so when the grid is struggling to meet needs, you might get a bounce for being able to shut off some of your energy consumption in the building. You can thus have each building become a piece of your smart grid. Then you can have your transportation network connected so that vehicles can store electricity when there is a surplus in the grid and feed it back into the grid when there is a need.

The champions and the road map [Strategic Plan] are key but there are many other pieces. I would, however just emphasize [a third,] procurement or being able to translate these exciting visions. We need the sensors, meters, other [hardware] components along with associated software to be able to offer these integrated service. How do we write an RFP for that, how do we buy what we need, how do we have fair competition from world class vendors that doesn’t get so prescriptive that city officials who are new to smart technologies can draft these very complex RFP documents that permit multiple vendors or consortium of vendors with highly creative solutions that fit into the procurement system.

This raises two questions. Where are we in terms of integrative applications: “there’s an App for that” versus “there’s an integrated system/framework in which to fit that App,” what the Council calls “system of systems?” What is the situation in terms of open platforms that allow multiple bidders to offer solutions

Moving first to where are we in terms of these integrative applications from the perspectives of cities, there are many around the world that have begun to do this weaving together across departments. Barcelona and Amsterdam are two while in North America, Washington DC has been doing a lot to make things available across many departments as have Chicago, New York City. But even Barcelona hasn’t yet fully implemented integration. As I said earlier there is no city in the world all the way there. There are cities in the world that are beginning to deploy quite a few, very sophisticated smart technologies across almost every aspect of their operations; but, they are still working to create that shared platform. It is more a kind of building it as they go approach.

Even Barcelona, which is rolling this out in many different departments, such as transportation, energy, water and so forth, doesn’t have an off-the-shelf kind of single platform. As you said, the European Union is exploring ways for a shared platform that cities can draw on. There is an initiative called “City Protocol” that is trying to map out some of these needs that cities have. I think this is what we will see over the next few years, creating a shared platforms, a model framework for Smart Cities in a way that each city can adapt it for its own use. Cities are so different around the world but they have this underlying system and structure so that every city has the same fundamental structural things it is trying to do. The way that a city functions at the street level, however, can be very very different.

An open system would be more like an android system that can work across many different types of devices and different manufacturers. In the same way, when we work with cities we advocate trading these plug and play systems so different vendors can compete to supply different components of the systems. What is happening now is we are moving from having each tiny piece of the city figuring out what that looks like in terms of software and sensors and data and we are beginning finally to see cities know that they need to be more open, so they insist that if a vendor wins that piece of work the vendor will communicate that data to other parts of the city’s systems.

System of systems is a phrase we use a lot at the Council. Instead of viewing water as its own silo as its own department where the water people don’t ever talk to the energy people and neither are talking to the education department and so forth, the city becomes a living system of data and information flow across the silos. You do this to find synergies to deliver services in a more nimble way delivering more value to people and people connect to services more environmentally friendly.

With the council, we really advocate both open platforms and open data. Open data of course must be provided consistent with protecting people’s privacy and security.

In which areas are smart technologies being used most in cities; which are the leaders and which are the next in line?        

Well, I would say smart water systems, smart energy systems, and smart transportation systems. For example, the Unites States Department of Transportation has a $50,000 grant solicitation to larger cities that is for an all-transportation Eco-system. The winning city is going to have to show how it is linking its mass transit services to emerging car share services, to walking, to bike sharing, in other words all those other kinds of mobility are going to have to have data services that can communicate with each other so the city can offer its citizens incredible levels of mobility. This is very important for the very young who don’t drive yet, the very old who cannot drive or don’t want a car anymore, and to those suburban areas where there might be very poor mobility choices beyond the car. So there are emerging services that can help younger people who don’t drive in suburban areas access shared services.

The next generation are applications like the app Ridescout where you can get all the different modalities displayed. You get on Ridescout and it knows where you are.; it will tell you the optimal bus route is but it will also tell you here are five other options or here is a way you can link a bit of car sharing and then something else. I think we will start to see cities have integrated transportation solutions over the next few years.

I think we will see tremendous advances in smart green buildings and that integration will be with smart grids. So, for instance, there will be demand/response where an appliance can anticipate when cheaper electrify rates are in effect or you can program a washing machine for when the rates are cheaper.

Internet of Things (IoT) and the ability of city to use big data, have cities the technical capability and the person power to utilize the potential of this data?

The ability to handle data can be provided in very flexible ways so the city doesn’t have to get a massive data centre to store endless amounts of data that the city is going to have to gather by itself and analyze all by itself. It can use the cloud, for example, to flexibly ebb and flow the data that is stored and rely on partners with their own data storage warehouses and set up the protocols to access each other’s data. And then, in terms of the analytics, how do you do predictions and make these connections between data. Again this is moving very quickly and the city doesn’t have to build it from scratch.

So IBM’s Watchit program it is a set of artificial intelligence applications… most famous for winning at Jeopardy. Those AI applications can be accessed by cities so increasingly it is a question of how you weave together a city’s huge legacy of all these different kinds of software systems and all their different data.   Currently, it is not always easy to access and it is not necessarily compatible; so; how do you migrate all that so it’s more cloud-based and more interoperable so you can add value. It is so much not about just gathering a lot of random data. Let’s gather the right kind of data, let’s make sure we can tidy it up, give it meaning and context and link the data to other relevant data to find patterns that help ordinary people. That’s what it’s about.

As the private realm and government may be in conflict, such as when you can use a road for delivery given congestion, what kind of dialogue is taking place between sectors?

That is a great question. In trash hauling, one of our partners, ENEVO, have a simple technology where you can place a small sensor the size of an orange in a recycling container or a trash container and it can give you real time readings on the fill level. What you can do is service the container as required. Even the ones that need more servicing you can carefully schedule. The night before you do a final read of all the containers and schedule the next day to avoid congestion areas based on interaction with the city. You can do the routing to avoid noise, congestion and frustration. You are making fewer trips for half-filled containers while leaving over-filled containers. You’re saving money through less trips and fewer drivers while contributing much less CO2.

What if there are conflicts where the city wants to tax you based on the data received? Those are policy issues and if there is a policy issue and it requires some kind of reporting, then the benefits of Smart Cities is that if it has been determined based on data [evidence based]that this is a requirement and the data demonstrating this must be made available. If you are a smart city you are there as that data is available. It is a matter of connecting data streams that maybe the building manager has been working with for years.

For the kind of conflicts you are talking about involving privacy and security, the Council has some very clear guidelines around the absolute necessity for privacy and security. There are very powerful ways to employ cryptology and protect the privacy of data so there are ways to find out things about the overall patterns and flows in the city without ever needing to know who did what, when and where.

Is there a worry about a growing number of people who are concerned about this amount of data in the hands of government?

That’s a good question. The only thing people are more concerned about than big data being used by Google is the government. There are huge debates right now, and rightly so, to sort this out. But in the Smart Cities context there are very clear ways to build the firewalls you want to protect individual privacy and ensure security. There should be a transparent conversation about how that works and how to protect people’s data while still creating ways for the properly encrypted data to be used for general patterns.

How can we ensure governance with two-way conversation without isolating people?

See the Smart City as having different channels and ways to engage. It is not a debate about whether or not we should have face-to-face town halls or whether or not someone should be able to meet with their representative. Those are all good things and are a vital part of a functioning democracy. We need these face-to-face contact, to be able to look around to see who is at the town meeting, to hear what they have to say and to hear them out; that’s essential. The question is how can these other Smart City channels add to the opportunities for grass roots citizen-based democracy. Currently, social media has been completely transforming how we are thinking about city government. Even having the social media feeds from twitter is totally changing how you might see debate coverage or Google’s search terms looking for what topics are trending or politicians being able to have those social media sites to get feedback. So with the smart city we are adding channels to that.

There are a number of really interesting apps that citizens can use that can do everything from just getting into the nuts and bolts of the city to, in a real way, practice democracy. There is an app where you can take a photo of a hole in the sidewalk and its coordinates are immediately tagged in the photo. The photo goes off to the transportation department and you can actually generate an automatic notice that there is work order to fix this pot hole. It can be anonymous or if people want to be updated they can. Those kind of apps let people engaging in daily life connect with cities. Reporting graffiti in real time is another example.

There are apps that allow citizens to weigh in on what their budgetary priorities would be. A handful of cities have now provided apps to their citizens that ask: “if you were mayor, how would you allocate the city budget.” People can play with some sliders, say I want a higher percentage in education and a lower percentage for police. Whatever it happens to be, that can be submitted and it becomes one more data point as the next budget is drawn up. So, there are all kinds of ways that we can get this kind of citizen engagement with citizens connecting and engaging with each other.

I think it becomes a very healthy layer of democracy but it is not intended to compete with the face-to-face. Ideally, it enhances it because people can develop all kinds of citizen led initiatives that actually have people connecting face-to-face to do things or connecting with city officials. The apps enhance the ability of people to interconnect in the physical space in the city.

Let me finish with: What are the biggest hurdles to realizing Smart City potential?

That’s a great question. I would say it is procurement. City budgets are very lean and also often inflexible. Cities need to spend their money carefully and thoughtfully. With endless demands on a city’s budget, you must make the case for smart technology solidly tested against cost effectiveness, environmental benefits, meeting citizen needs, fitting in and enhancing everything the city is doing, enhancing the city’s brand, helping economic development, etc. These are the right things to measure. But for smart technologies, whether it its new software, or cloud data services or smart hardware like meters, if it is unfamiliar, if there is no champion, it faces the usual innovation hurdle. That is key.

Like any set of exciting promising technologies throughout history, until its moving up the adoption curve, people will say “where else has it been tried, build me a strong business case, show me some comparables, give some good numbers on cost/benefit analysis and sustainability benefits. Give ten vendors I can put on this list so I can seek bids effectively.” Right now Smart Cities this vast emerging field. For city department officials, they may not have anywhere to begin understanding the right set of solutions. It might just seem too risky to push for procuring something.

Infrastructure decisions, however, must now include the “smart” layer; it is not two different things. When we talk about smart infrastructure for something as simple as installing a smart street light, you are talking about replacing the old fixture with a super-efficient LED light that has its own sensor so the light level can be adjusted so you are not over illuminating in the early evening dusk. But it can also be providing Wi-Fi services and it can be providing a variety of parking monitoring applications. You can do all of these things with a single street light. All of our infrastructure can have sensors that tell us when it is wearing out and when it needs maintenance. A smart approach to infrastructure give us the information so that vast new highways or expensive bridges become the last resort. It is about stretching infrastructure using smart technologies so we get more and more out of the existing infrastructure we have.

Stuart Cowan, chief scientist, Smart Cities Council  Partner, Autopoiesis LLC
Stuart Cowan, chief scientist, Smart Cities Council Partner, Autopoiesis LLC
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