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Designing Smart Cities in 2013

This guest post is submitted by Mischa Dohler - Chair Professor at King’s College London, Board of Directors at Worldsensing, Distinguished Lecturer at IEEE, Editor-in-Chief,  ETT

“Smart Cities” – a trendy phrase likely to be hackneyed before even having achieved anything tangible in improving urban living conditions. Consultants, policy makers, think tanks – they all paint a rosy future for and through these smart cities. However, there are a few of us out there who are actually sweating to make cities smart. Today. What follows, is a review of some of the challenges we face as of the design year 2013, where focus is mainly on the use and deployment of smart city infrastructure rather than social, citizen and many other aspects. 

Designing smartness into cities requires some major infrastructure upgrade; in a sense we are constructing the brain of the city. We have undertaken something similar before: we have built highways, the Internet, the Smart Grid. These prior connectivity exercises have two things in common: i) they have meshed and connected entities (computers, cities, etc) to the point that connectivity is secondary whilst the ability to provide services (FaceBook, supply chains, etc) has become prime point of interest; and ii) they were built without a specific nor proven return-of-investment (ROI) model in mind, with all of them having returned their investment by orders of magnitude. These connectivity initiatives however differ in one critical point compared to smart cities, in that they had significant governmental support which allowed them to become operational fairly quickly. Cities worldwide are inherently broke and governments historically don’t want to interfere too much with cities, the result being that there is very little financial support to making smart cities happen. 

The biggest challenge of this early part of the 21st century is thus to bootstrap the undoubtedly high-potential smart city market in cities which are essentially broke. 

To this end, I would like to share some hands-on experiences which we gained traveling around the world, knocking on the doors of cities and infrastructure providers, with the aim to generate business for Worldsensing, a company I cofounded and which is the only SME mentioned in Pike Research as a Smart City Pioneer, along CISCO, IBM, Vodafone, etc. During these travels, I figured there are roughly 3 types of cities: 1) ROI-driven; 2) carbon-driven; 3) vanity-driven. As for 1), the aim of rolling out smart city technologies is to generate income which pays for its deployment and more. There are many cities in the western hemisphere which fall into this category, such as Los Angeles, London. As for 2), the aim here is to reduce the carbon footprint and ideally become carbon neutral long-term. These are mainly cities in Middle and Northern Europe, such as Luxembourg, Helsinki, etc. Finally, “vanity” driven cities are mainly driven by events where the entire world is watching and they want to be perceived as “modern”. 

The sales pitch in all three city types is of course very different. Take the example of smart parking, which is one of the product lines of Worldsensing: in 1), we sell the business process behind the system which is able to spot infringers who have not paid their parking ticket; our ability to guide people to vacant parking spaces was rarely discussed during the sales meetings. In 2), we sell the ability of the system to guide drivers quickly to an empty parking spot or advise drivers that certain areas are completely full, thus reducing unnecessary traffic, traffic jams, and thus pollution. Our ability to fine citizens had to be kept very quiet. In 3), whilst budgets are often not a problem here, the deployment rarely went through public procurement which required a technical and vision alignment with the prime partner for the smart city project.

Based on these insights, I would like share around 10 major challenges we faced, as well as some recommendations on how to go about them:

1) Political Cycles:
a. Observation: No matter how beautiful and useful your product design, most of the things you sell into the city will go through some form of public approval or procurement. The problem is that these procurements are, in many countries around the world, heavily coupled into political activities. In Spain, for instance, there are the city elections, the regional and the government elections: plus/minus 4-6 months of each of them, the political, and thus executive and with it financial firepower is completely paralyzed. If timing is unfortunate, this can leave you with only a 20% sales window opportunity. Can smart city business thrive under these conditions?
b. Recommendation: We need governance mechanisms at city, region and national levels which decouple the political cycles from the technological ones, and thus facilitate a proper uptake of smartness.

2) Political Decision Taking:
a. Observation: Since there is virtually no precedence of large scale smart city rollouts, decisions to use, or at least to trial new technologies, are very political in the sense of personal relationship to town halls, political agendas, etc. That is not a good turf for smartness to grow.
b. Recommendation: We need to ensure deployment mechanisms, even for early adaptors, which are based on fair market drive and associated competitions. Similar to what happen to the IT industry some decades back, we must decouple the political element from the technological one, where choosing a smart city technology ought to be as straightforward as to choose a new computer.

3) Intelligent Procurement:
a. Observation: Most of the smart city technologies will need to rely on a procurement process. Procurement today, by its very essence, chooses the set of technologies which fulfils the minimum requirements and then chooses the cheapest one. This is of course recipe for failure and certainly does not allow for sustainable growth and implementation of smart technologies.
b. Recommendation: Enforce mechanisms which meaningfully evaluate the future capability of the technology under consideration, and not only base the decision on pure pricing. We thus need to shift from a cost-driven approach to a longterm-purpose driven procurement approach.

4) Lack of Finances:
a. Observation: The lack of financial power of cities is very visible, and very problematic. In the ROI-driven cities and economies, there is a strong feeling that the only way of getting smart cities going is to properly bootstrap the market.
b. Recommendation: One solution is to concentrate strictly on ROI-healthy solutions, and there are some of them in the smart city context. Examples can be found in transportation (smart parking e.g.), smart street-lightening, or smart bins, etc. Another important shift which needs to be invoked relates to the change from CAPEX-driven city deployments to OPEX-driven approaches; the paradigm here would be a Smart City as a Service (SCaaS).

5) Established Stakeholder System:
a. Observation: Unlike common believes among the newcomers in the smart city community, the city space is serviced by a very established stakeholder system. It is run by companies most of us have never heard of, but these are companies which mainly provide the infrastructure, i.e. the visible part of the city. They are not the stakeholders which provide the intelligence, i.e. the ability to make the city really smart.
b. Recommendation: Ensure there is a real dialogue between the established stakeholders and the emerging stakeholders without the former feeling threatened about their space and without the latter believing to be able to do it all alone.

6) City Legacy System:
a. Observation: Cities are thousands of years old. Arguably the biggest technical challenge in any smart city endeavours is to retrofit smartness into these cities with a strong political, cultural and technical legacy.
b. Recommendation: We ought to make sure that smart city solutions are not only perfect standalone ideas and products but are actually being able to be deployed and retrofitted. That is, not only pursue design for a perfect end-purpose but make sure you know of the exact steps of getting it out, deployed and used.

7) Complex Eco-System:
a. Observation: Cities are extraordinary complex in stakeholder composition and interaction. To get anything meaningful done, also at global scale, under these circumstances is an arduous task.
b. Recommendation: It is not the first time that we faced the design of such complex systems with global footprint. Systems the design of which succeeded had typically undergone these processes:
i. Standardisation: It plays an important role in ensuring scalable up-take of technology, inter-operability, fair competition, and long-term availability. Therefore, smart city technologies ought to inherently be standards compliant. First global initiatives on smart city standardisation are well under way.
ii. Virtualisation: Often overlooked but it plays an important role in properly decoupling different stakeholders which in turn facilities independent growth in each eco-system. The computing industry has shown the way, where the hardware, operating system and application software ecosystems have evolved independently whilst always ensuring operability. Similarly, it is important to ensure that the smart city hardware, software and service applications evolve as independently as possible.

8) Urban Fabs:
a. Observation: The good news for the UK is that manufacturing in China is not anymore a difference of 1:10, but rather a 1:2 for medium volume product quantities. Manufacturing is thus naturally returning to the Western hemisphere. Urban fab labs, i.e. the production and manufacturing through e.g. 3D-Printing done locally, is a trending development. The problem is related to an increase of pollution in these areas, poorer waste recycling ecosystem, and the inferior supply chains of raw material.
b. Recommendation: As with supply chains and many other verticals, a virtualisation to manufacturing might be worth studying and considering, where – instead of dismantling them –  macro manufacturing sites are shared in a cost efficient manner by companies worldwide, to achieve e.g. cheap access to supply-chain optimised and waste/pollution-management certified 3D printing. Another avenue worth exploiting is to use the well-honed supply chain of major chains, such as supermarket chains, to bring raw material into urban environments; and equally use their optimised waste-recollection system.

9) Data Craze:
a. Observation: Reference to big, open or private data appears in each powerpoint today. Three issues which I believe are important to bear in mind:
i. Big Data: There is no doubt that big data can give unique and unprecedented insights, mainly when cross correlated with data from different domains. However, we observed that most big data insights are very well known to those really working 24/7 in the concerned vertical. Big data is mostly used for spicing up the PPTs of the executives whilst not attending to the problems which could really be solved.
ii. Open Data: There is also no doubt that open data will be a major factor in making big data happen. To open data, however, cannot be enforced as those companies generating the data typically go through just-at-margin procurements – why would I release data on which somebody else will be capitalising on?
iii. Privacy Issues: The recent NSA scandal has not helped but building higher and stronger privacy walls is not the right way to go. Nature does not work like this; imagine the brain, based on privacy argumentation, refuses to instruct the arm muscles to retract after the temperature sensors in the hand signal burning heat? The real big data opportunities come with private data used carefully.
b. Recommendations:
i. To make maximum usage of big data, you need to act on it. A simple working slogan, such as “Don’t sense without acting”, would immediately change the entire big data paradigm. Also, it is important to give access of large heterogeneous data sets to the right people, i.e. those who can actually act and use it advantageously.
ii. Open data will live its full potential once the value chain has been put in place where the business generating the data can be assured that part of the value generated from that data actually comes back.
iii. Intelligent or context-aware privacy mechanisms are needed to ensure that opportunities, both in making the world a more efficient but also more ethical place, are being made full use of.

10) Citizens:
a. Observation: We have become aware of the broken value chain between citizens and the decision makers within cities. There is a strong trend of re-engaging the citizen in the design process of making a city a smarter place. However, there is a danger of becoming too obsessed about this reengagement as i) by far not everybody wants to be involved in designing urban space (in fact, most of us just want to get on with life; the heated discussions among like-minded give us the impression that all want to be part of this process); and ii) even if you involve an eager crowd, your engagement will jump from 0.000001% to 0.0001% maybe – so no real improvement of involving the masses in redesigning the city.
b. Suggestion: Since people are by nature great in complaining, the process of delivering and acting upon these complaints ought to be made as efficient and transparent as possible. Simple feedback has always been the most effective way of improvement, and is an efficient way of involving the crowds.

I am keen on hearing your feedback; please, write to me under or, or tweet me at @mischadohler. I am equally keen on updating you on the smart city design challenges of 2014.





14 people have had something to say so far

Hi Mischa.

Thanks for sharing this.

I am particularly interested in your comment 10 regarding citizen engagement and where you draw your observations or get your figures from? I'm not sure I properly understand your comment about being "too obsessed about this reengagement". What do you mean exactly and can you give examples?
Posted on 16/10/13 22:07.
Hi Michael,

Re: figures, I purposely didn't put the real numbers as people wouldn't understand the message. I was meant to make the point here that - involving a larger crowd seems like a major step forward - but in reality it is only getting rid of some zeros. Let's do an estimate on the real numbers, though. Assume there are about 1000 people actively shaping the urban space of the UK today, out of a population of about 63m; that makes 0.0015%. Assume, if you are lucky, you are able to engage 100k, i.e. 100 times more; your engagement goes up to 0.15%. I exaggerated the numbers to make the point that you are still far from 100%, or even 10% of engagement and you can therefore barely call it a citizen-centric design. It is as if an election is done with 0.15% of the population - basically meaningless if you strive for a democratic design.

Re "too obsessed", I observed that in smart city events lately, we talk a lot about engaging the citizens. It has almost become an obsession, so it feels. I personally think it is a good idea. But at the same time, I am just trying to make the point that maybe not everybody wants to be engaged (I have queried a circle of friends and they were not very convinced); and, that even if we manage to involve more people, we are still far off a democratic design of urban space.

Thanks for your questions! I hope to meet you one day!

Kindest, Mischa.
Posted on 17/10/13 21:08 in reply to Michael Kohn.
Mischa thanks for your clarification.

You are right that not everyone wants to be actively engaged ( until it is their back yard that is affected by proposals of course !)

Even as new ways to actively participate in city design may emerge, I suspect most people will still choose to react through the formal planning processes established by their city administrations, rather than choose to engage in participatory design processes that may be facilitated through new technologies.

I am not sure about your conclusion on the lack of value of increasing small numbers however. If you can increase engagement by 100x as you suggest, that is 100 times more human brains and sets of eyes giving city administrations and design and planning teams real local design intelligence that is frankly invaluable in making smarter decisions. And larger crowds could also point to new solutions etc - it just takes one idea that the professional teams didn't have for value to be realised. Data growth on engagement is also still growth in my opinion, and over time this growth could become significant.
But maybe this suits the feedback method you refer to as being more effective?

To see an example of cities working with citizen feedback to plan for smarter services, take a look at how the Wandsworth transport planning team are listening for resident feedback from Roehampton locals on our Stickyworld platform.

We are now working with CISCO, Living PlanIT and Royal Borough of Greenwich on a smart data overlays in Stickyworld with integrated maps and mobile reporting, possibly including real time data to help validate similar feedback made by local citizens. I'd certainly be happy to meet up to discuss and learn more about your work at Worldsensing.
Posted on 17/10/13 23:54 in reply to Mischa Dohler.
Dear Michael,

I completely agree! And I hope I was clear in both my article as well as my first reply that I am supportive of these schemes. And I love your scheme, the link you had given. Great! In fact, I would love to hear more about it, and - if you have some presentation material - maybe even put it into my presentations I am giving with increasing frequency on this and related topics. Please, drop me an email - thanks!

I only wanted to highlight that, even though we have multiplied brain power by 100, the solution is still not a crowd solution and very far from a democratic solution. In fact, I would go that far in saying that those who would really benefit from urban engagement (elderly, kids, disabled, ill, etc) are rarely involved since the ones you reach via digital means are young and dynamic. I would love to see some statistics on age, gender, profession of those who participated in your initiative; this set should then be normalized and un-biased w.r.t. the population statistics in this area. To cut it short, let's meet and discuss.

Kindest, Mischa.
Posted on 18/10/13 07:51 in reply to Michael Kohn.
Sure Mischa - let's meet.

Thanks for taking a look at the Wandsworth transport forum on Stickyworld. It has been viewed around 1200 times, (still a small number but it grows every day and someone has commented since you visited ) . It has 17 pictures and panoramics with specific questions prepared by the council, 53 consultees who have already started 38 conversations with 70 replies. It's still a very small number given the size of Roehampton and transport users, but generates some new useful insights which are actually saving the council money in their decision making process.

It's open and free to comment, but inappropriate comments may be flagged by community or moderated by the manager . Stickyworld doesn't collect demographic data (and many wouldn't give it) but we understand councils of course want it and we are working on the appropriate way to ask consultees and how this can further validate their comments.

Like other online forums it serves simply as a channel of engagement, a useful tool but not the whole story. Wandsworth currently couple Stickyworld with face to face meetings as well as formal online surveys to build a fuller picture and they do their analysis from every source of data they collect. I hope that clarifies what you have seen. I will send you an email and hope to meet up to discuss smart cities and citizen feedback.
Posted on 18/10/13 12:24 in reply to Mischa Dohler.
[...] Design - innovateuk [...] Read More
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[...] Design - innovateuk [...] Read More
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Posted on 13/11/13 12:18.
Haitao Zhao
Thanks Mischa for sharing
Posted on 23/01/14 09:01.
Ewerton Costa
The article is very fine but the comments are awesome. Thanks for all!
Posted on 12/03/14 14:31.
[...] Design This guest post is submitted by Mischa Dohler - Chair Professor at King’s College London, Board of Directors at Worldsensing, Distinguished Lecturer at IEEE, Editor-in-Chief, ETT “Smart... [...] Read More
Posted on 15/03/14 16:30.
Smart Cities/M2M/IoT – there is a significant amount of hype generated in these spaces, especially by stakeholders with vested interests.
That said, there are clear business cases with reasonable adoption rates in certain verticals, for ‘Products/Solutions’ developed by organizations like yours, mine and several others that are making meaningful dents in these spaces.
You would certainly agree that from a core technology/standards perspective there is a significant amount of work required to bring down costs and make the ROI attractive in these spaces.

I believe that each city (taking a global view across continents) is at a certain maturity level in its adoption of technology in general and that offers a unique opportunity to intertwine elements of smartness across the board in certain verticals. In addition if we apply the Pareto Principle, there are certain key areas that will provide the maximum benefit – it is incumbent upon cities to focus where the ROI is highest as ultimately it is we, as taxpayers, who are bankrolling the same.

The aspects you have mentioned will apply in various degrees depending on the city in question, however certain core problems will be all pervasive, such as ‘Data Related Boundaries’.

You point out that there is an ‘Established Stakeholder System’ that in my view will help alleviate (partly or significantly, based on the country we are in) the barriers created by the Points 3, 4 & 5 of your article – Political Decision Making, Intelligent Procurement and Lack of Finance. Stakeholders who run services in most cities today are largely private enterprises driven by profit and if the ‘Smart Technologies’ impact their bottom line then they will willingly invest in the same – case in point being Smart Grids / Utilities. You would agree that compelling reasons exist in a many other sectors and there is a need to clearly articulate / sensitize decision makers on the same – while at the same time there is a significant scope to optimize the ROIs in the Smart City space, which I am sure will lead to faster adoption.

Lastly, this is a slightly utopian view, if a Public Private Partnership is created with all stakeholders and a methodology to carve out the profits from monetizing the data – via applications provided to citizens – can be structured, the ‘Data Paralysis’ could be addressed.
Posted on 21/03/14 14:49.
Anyone care to update this to 2016?
Posted on 25/04/16 18:54.

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