Why aren’t we all living in smart cities?

October 2018

This article appeared in the October 2018 issue of the ALGIM (Association of Local Government Information Management) quarterly newsletter.

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Our world is changing at an exponential rate, and the population of our cities is rising so quickly that traditional city and social planning isn’t sufficiently predictive, responsive and cost-effective.

The resulting growing social inequality, strained services and infrastructure, and decline in our natural capital are threatening our communities’ ability to thrive.

Simultaneously, we are living in a golden age of technology: sophisticated sensor devices and enormous computing power are available inexpensively to even small organisations, and techniques like machine learning can now help humans draw helpful insights from data even in the midst of chaotic change.

The emerging Smart Cities field promises to apply these new tools and technologies to help our communities address their key issues by making better decisions, informed by relevant data. And so forward-thinking cities around the world are trialling systems and commissioning an assortment of vendors in pursuit of this digital planning nirvana.

After several years at the coal face of this practice, frequently working with talented and driven smart city practitioners in councils and the private sector, it is clear to our growing community that many vanguard cities around the world are struggling to realise the benefits.

All the physical, social and natural systems in our cities are connected intimately into a complex ecosystem, and they directly affect each other: for example, traffic congestion can’t be resolved by looking only at our road networks.

Many Smart Cities programmes are failing to fully illuminate these interconnections, instead accumulating specialised data in closed silos at great expense to both cities and vendors. This is a natural result of compartmentalised budgets and purchasing decisions. Some of this data can provide real benefits in its primary area, but when it cannot be easily shared, re-used and “mashed up” with very different data to understand the bigger picture, then it cannot yield its greatest value.

We can learn from overseas Smart City experiences and avoid questionable vanity projects that fail to move the field forwards or that squander public funds. Smaller cities - which are often growing fastest - have the greatest financial risk, and they struggle to learn from the larger cities’ data and lessons.

The fundamental problem here is that our ability to produce city data outstrips cities’ ability to understand it and collaborate around it. When it comes to these technologies, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we believe this view clearly indicates the way forward.

Data drives informed communication: only when it flows freely can it produce good conversations, and result in decisions that reflect broader understanding. In our own Smart Cities work to date with major New Zealand cities, we have focused on bringing together advanced technology spanning sensors, machine learning and game technology to build holistic views of cities, connected to social issues and outcomes. Great things happen when a range of technology and data are intelligently combined and linked to a specific cause.

We see an exciting path ahead enabling cities, agencies and vendors to collaborate around data with less expense and risk. Partners will win by exchanging data and learnings easily, and by federating them with other organisations. This exchange between agencies within a city will enable truly smart cities, and that same open sharing and communication between cities and vendors will let us all tackle our enormous challenges and opportunities effectively as a Smart Nation.