Smart Cities – Frankenstein or Pinocchio?

Every day we read about new ideas that bring the concept of the Smart City to life – from water systems that predict demand based on the weather forecast and set storage levels appropriately, to street lighting that senses traffic and pedestrian movement to reduce power requirements in quiet neighbourhoods and power management systems that use dormant electric vehicles as micro storage mechanisms.

All of these amazing concepts paint a new picture of the Smart City, not so much as a series of connected systems but as an intelligent, living and breathing beast whose purpose is to improve the Quality of Life of its inhabitants. In fact, the Smart City may be comparable to the human body, which plays host to billions of helpful bacteria and provides the perfect environment for them to thrive, except in this case we bacteria are designing the host instead of adapting to it.

At the heart of the Smart City is the network, or central nervous system through which flows data that controls all of the peripheral functions. This system feeds on and digests information from the cloud, soaking up the ambient intelligence that permeates our lives, and that until now has been unavailable for consumption.

To this raw material of environmental data it adds a level of intelligence that allows it to analyse this data, hypothesise on predicted consequences and take action to preserve the status quo based on the balance of probability. It is more than logical, it is Smart.

Through this nervous system, the Smart City “knows” everything. It knows that there is a light on in your bathroom but that nobody has been there for 10 minutes. It knows that there is an accident on Main Street and that a traffic jam is imminent that will prevent emergency vehicles from reaching the spot. It also knows that the cold weather means that more people will be taking hot baths which will put a strain on the water and power systems, and it compensates for all of these scenarios by taking the appropriate action. It turns your bathroom light off. It diverts traffic courtesy of the traffic lights to reduce delays and clear a path for emergency vehicles. And it begins to store more power and water to allow for predicted demand.

In this sense, the Smart City is an instinctive organism which is every bit as complex as a living bio-chemical system such as a coral reef. But who will design build this creature? Right now, the design of this magnificent beast is vertically aligned, the ultimate illustration of a silo mentality, and if we continue down this path it is hard to imagine anything other than a Smart City that is more akin to Frankenstein than Pinocchio, with disparate systems roughly cobbled together to give basic functionality but no hope of evolution into a more graceful, serene and effective creature.

As one example, today we are making significant progress in solutions which allow us to plan the recharging of electric vehicles to reduce the “range anxiety” that comes with these vehicles. But of course if everyone tries to recharge their vehicles at the same time, the grid would not be able to cope, and so we have to develop a solution that crosses the transport and power verticals to plan the load and prevent this from happening. And once we have done this, we will realise that there are other benefits such as the grid being able to use fully charged but dormant electric vehicles as a micro-storage mechanism to help refine its consumption response.

Today the evidence of serious projects designed to develop cross vertical M2M solutions is scarce.It is not as simple as laying this at the doorstep of our Governments, but it is also interesting to note where the progress is actually being made. Smart Cities themselves are not being driven and funded as projects very often by Governments, but instead by private sector verticals – but where they are, these kinds of issues are being resolved more quickly. So perhaps we can conclude that increasing the involvement of Government in a leadership role in Smart City initiatives would result in a better outcome, faster.

Maybe it is time we all began to work together in collaborative ecosystems like the ng Connect Program to make sure that we begin this journey in the right way, with centrally-organised design and creation from an authority with a pure motive and no vertical agenda – that is to make our lives better.

Rob Parkes

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