September 20, 2017 | Smart City

Surveying the city

In these times in which more and more people are moving into the world’s mega and big cities, the “smart city” is an increasingly important trend. But what’s it all about?

Article by Katharina Kutsche published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung

A city that no longer suffers from traffic jams … in which traffic is controlled in such a technically intelligent manner that no-one has to wait anymore … and in which CO2 emissions and the particulate matter (PM) load fall as a result and the city is green and healthy. That’s roughly the vision for mobility in a smart city—smart because it’s networked.

We’re talking about one of the most important projects in the field of urban development and town planning. A trend that every self-respecting major city is trying to turn into reality. The hot topic at Hanover’s CeBIT IT fair this March and the expansive and capacious topic of the Smart City Expo World Congress being held in Barcelona in November. Big data, safety, sustainability and mobility—these are the key catchwords. Big words that nevertheless throw up more questions than they provide answers to.

Why is a city “smart” if it controls its street traffic digitally? Surely it’d be much smarter if more car owners decided to leave their automobiles at home when they go downtown. This example reveals how the debate has so far been going down the wrong route. Those cities that currently call themselves smart have for the most part two things to show for themselves—a concept and good marketing. This simply isn’t enough.

Even attempting to get anywhere close to the very definition of a smart city is difficult, because to date there isn’t a city in the world that has successfully implemented everything we understand by the phrase “smart city”. There are indeed some interesting projects out there that we can visit. For instance, the subway and streetcar systems in Vienna/Austria are investigating how they can recover the energy that arises when the vehicles brake and feed this back into the DC power system.

Smart street lamps 

In Lyon/France, corporations and researchers are trialing new “smart grid” solutions for supplying power to 25,000 households and 100 businesses. And in Munich’s most westerly suburb of Neuaubing, a project is underway to streamline the energy system of the district and in future to light its streets with smart street lamps that combine a light source, Wi-Fi hotspot and measuring instrument into one single unit. All three of these cities have been selected by the EU Commission as beacons in this field, providing them with €20m of funding, as part of the “Smarter Together” project, to help them come up with intelligent solutions for their infrastructure. But much of this is still in the development phase. The cities in question have set themselves environmental and energy targets, such as total CO2 neutrality, which they want to achieve by 2050. We won’t, then, find out for another 33 years whether their respective take on what a smart city is does indeed turn out to be a successful model or not.

Despite this, the urban surveys being conducted open up great opportunities. Experts predict that in future the vast majority of people will live in urban areas. This poses massive challenges not only for the already densely populated mega cities, but for the rapidly expanding medium-sized and small cities, too. Those cities that aren’t already looking for ways to better network people and their utilities will get left behind.

Local authorities must take countermeasures—based above all on data. Truly smart cities are busy compiling, recording and processing whatever data it’s technically (and legally) feasible to. Sensors embedded in pavements measure traffic flows, smart street lamps record PM levels, clever thermostats and controllers control heating systems and building facilities based on whether residents are at home or not. It’s precisely on the streets and in public transport that such solutions need to be executed. Why should people armed with a clipboard still have to count how many passengers get on and off at each stop? There are far better ways of doing it.

So, you can see how wrong it would be to take the term “smart city” literally. “City” must be understood as a synonym for “region” or “area”, be it rural or urban. A smart region will also find solutions for those who don’t actually live in it: for commuters, suppliers, and tourists. In Germany’s Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region, for instance, 150 local authorities in three administrative districts and three federal states are working in unison to network their infrastructure and defray the costs. This is the way to do it.

But it isn’t technologies that network a smart city—it’s individuals. That’s why the definition laid down by Vienna’s city authority is exemplary. It sums up its activities as “intelligent, social and resource-conserving solutions for the city and its people”. This includes projects and buildings that foster social cohesion, such as multigenerational homes, which are just as big a part of a smart city as digital communications between citizens and the public administration are.

When is a city a smart city? Five propositions

Currently, our greatest hope and aim is to find sustainable solutions for mankind and the environment that waste less and preserve more. So, what does a city have to do to be able to call itself smart? Here are five propositions:

1. To begin with, there has to be a genuine strategy. A smart city is neither a state nor an advertising slogan—it’s a concept. And since there’s no universal definition of what a smart city is, each city needs to come up with its own definition of what it understands by the term and what it wants to achieve by becoming one. Each city needs a plan in which it sets out measures, estimates costs and names people in charge, partners and supervisory bodies. This should also go hand in hand with a review of the situation: What data has already been available for a long time? What data do we really need and what not? This strategy must be developed in the public domain with the citizens and external partners, fought for and documented on an open platform in the Net.

2. The public sector must set the tone and pace. The market economy is all well and good but only the state can set the parameters. The term “smart city” not only reveals the sphere of responsibility but also the party responsible. The city or local authority, i.e. the public sector, must draw up the concept, specify the parameters and monitor compliance.

Many of the things that are digitalized, reorganized or networked in a smart city concern aspects of public services: Garbage collection, the power supply, and transport. The key function of the public sector is to bear in mind the interests of its people. If those driving forward and/or running a smart city were exclusively corporate entities, their main priority and focus would be on profit maximization and not what benefits individuals most. The federal, state and local authorities, however, must also have the courage to invest even more in smart city projects. After all, we’re talking about investments in today’s infrastructure, and that of tomorrow, investments that are absolutely essential irrespective of what name we give the project.

For many people, wide-scale data collection is pretty scary—but we need to do it

Whatever happens in a smart city also needs to be transparent. In Vienna, platforms such as Open Data, that is, the publication of municipal data, are stipulated as essential parts of the overall strategy. It enables everyone involved to access data and the findings and to draw their own conclusions. And those people who make their data available, the citizens, give up only their information but not their control over it.

3. No data protection, nothing doing! A smart city is dependent on the support of its residents and their data. In many cases, we’re talking purely about totally anonymous user numbers that cannot be linked to individuals. But there are fields in which the city and its partners need personal data, such as for smart electricity meters in apartments.

For many people, such wide-scale data collection is pretty scary. That’s understandable and it remains an important issue even if data protection laws in Germany are very strict. Citizens and parties affected should therefore exercise their rights, inform themselves, and get involved by following the urban development measures being taken with a critical eye. In Munich, for instance, local residents affected are shaping what’s going on in their neighborhood by taking part in workshops. This boosts their level of acceptance and their own personal benefit.

4. No external partners, nothing doing! A smart city needs partners. Companies have the necessary expertise in digitalization that often isn’t to be found in public authorities. However, today’s smart cities are not just being developed where enterprises are agitating for them. They are also cooperating with universities and scientific institutes. These accompany the process and examine the benefits and consequences for the respective municipalities and the people that inhabit them. This enables negative developments to be identified and remedied quickly.

5. Failure must be allowed. A smart city is one potential scenario for the future, but not necessarily a compelling one. There are countless researchers out there who are busy investigating how individuals’ lives can be digitalized to an even greater extent. But there are just as many researchers out there who are studying the consequences of technology and networking for people’s lives. Not everything that is innovative is good for them. This also applies to the various parts of a smart city. That’s why it’s particularly positive that many cities have so far focused on just individual areas or tasks and are going about making themselves smart bit by bit.

All involved parties, especially cities and borough councils, must regularly check whether that that they have developed is actually leading to benefits that justify the consequences. And they must have the courage to abort supposedly smart actions that are shown to fail. Ultimately, this is probably the greatest challenge.