Beyond Smart Cities


Hey, Smart City!

city view through smartphone

Digitization is a key to making tomorrow's cities more livable – but it mustn't be seen as an end in itself. Smart cities are all about people – and they need to participate.

(Deutsche Version am Ende des Texts)
Imagine you're driving through the city and nearing a parking spot that your smart parking app tells you is free. But, when you get there, someone else is just backing their car into it. So you search for the next "smart parking space" on your cell phone, enter the address in your car's navigation system and try your luck again. Maybe this time it works, or maybe someone else is quicker on the draw again and it's back to square one. A company may market its product as a component of the smart city of tomorrow, but what the customer often ends up getting is something that doesn't actually work.

The idea behind smart parking is a good one: the average driver in Germany spends 41 hours a year searching for somewhere to park – or around ten minutes every time in big cities. It would be a boon to know before you leave home where you'll find a free parking spot on arrival. But, given the current state of the art, it is possible to get only a rough estimate of the overall parking situation at your destination. The application fails to focus on the customer's needs, making frustration inevitable.

To ensure that the parking spot you reserve is actually free when you arrive, however, would mean installing retractable bollards at every single public parking space – an undertaking that is not only unaffordable, but would clutter up the cityscape. That is why the principle on which today's smart parking solutions are based is that of the familiar parking meter, but in the shape of a sensor either integrated in the ground or attached to the post of a streetlight. The system does have one small advantage though: The sensor can monitor the status of more than one parking space at a time, transfer the information on parked vehicles to a data center in real time and thus provide a seamless log of utilization. What is more, the smartphone app enables easy mobile payment of parking fees. Thanks to the new technology, you won't find yourself having to rush back to the parking meter with small change when your shopping tour lasts longer than expected.

From the city treasurer's standpoint, however, this function may not be so welcome – after all, in some cities parking fines are a lucrative source of income. And there's another dilemma that urban planners face. Let's assume you could reserve a parking spot before you set off and know it will be available on arrival. This sort of broad-scale guarantee would undermine efforts to restrict the use of private vehicles in inner-city areas and to encourage people to walk, ride a bike or travel by public transportation.

In the digitized city of tomorrow, smart is often equated with technology-based

The product development process for smart cities is usually top-down, and smart is generally equated with technology-based – so hardware has a central role to play. But public-sector budgets are often too tight to pay for this ever newer, ever more powerful infrastructure. That's why large companies in particular are promoting the growth of smart cities across the globe, financing the corresponding projects up front and marketing sales-oriented products in order to verify their business models and test the next generation of infrastructure. Smart parking, smart waste management, smart lighting, smart transportation systems and all the other digital solutions that make up the smart city are based primarily on a single technology – the narrowbandInternet of Things – which can be tested in live operation.

Through their focus on the customer, digital solutions offer enormous potential

These solutions harbor enormous potential because they not only make life more convenient for the individual citizen, but have a positive effect on urban life as a whole:

  • Although smart waste management rarely receives the same degree of attention as solutions for future mobility, water supplies and energy management, it is just as relevant, since trash is one of the biggest challenges facing cities worldwide. Even comparatively small solutions can have a big impact. The installation of sensors in public trash cans, for instance, means they do not need to be emptied until they are actually full. In addition to efficiency gains and cost savings, this can help avoid unnecessary trips by garbage trucks and thus help ease city traffic.
  • Lighting has always played a key role in cities, and not just since the advent of the streetlight. The main purpose of smart street lighting solutions is to save energy, with LED lights and intelligent management enabling savings of up to 80 percent. What is more, streetlights offer installation points for other forms of technology. Additional sensors – to monitor air quality or noise levels, for instance – can be integrated in these lighting sources, as can Wi-Fi hotspots or other connectivity components.
  • With smart local public transportation systems, the focus is on more than just real-time trip information or being able to buy a ticket using a cell phone app. Going forward, it will be possible to automate processes completely where necessary with the aid of sensors and artificial intelligence. Closely meshed multi-modal routing will not only make travel more convenient and efficient, but also cut travel times – regardless of whether you are traveling alone and need to get from A to B, or whether huge numbers of people have to be gotten to and from large-scale events (like festivals and sporting fixtures) without getting in each other's way or having to wait ages for a spot on a train. 

Solutions of this kind not only make for leaner processes, but also reduce costs. Provided they are also thought through with a focus on the needs of their users, they will have a positive influence on urban challenges such as traffic congestion, noise pollution, air quality and safety, will enhance the quality of life of all city dwellers, and make a contribution to environmental protection.

Cross-organizational networking – a solution for smart cities

According to forecasts, within 30 years two-thirds of the Earth's inhabitants will live in cities, which will make urban life even more complex in the future. With increasing urbanization, the focus mustn't simply be on the added value for technology and infrastructure service providers, but also on achieving a new quality in urban communities and systems. Above all else, that means finding ways of dealing with terrorism, climate change, mobility, demographic change, and violence. Innovation, creativity and co-creation are the keys to solving these urban challenges. Co-creation describes an open interdisciplinary innovation process in which companies and their customers collaborate along with designers, engineers and other problem-solvers to create value for companies and add value for people. The bottom line is a welfare gain.

Cross-organizational networking in the shape of co-creation also works in cities because the latter define themselves through their "inhabitants" – a term that covers private citizens, local companies and administrative entities – and have always been places of social participation, where people can contribute and where political decisions are made. However, that means not only that policy makers and companies must treat city dwellers as equal partners in urban planning and ensure they develop people-centric systems, but also that the citizens themselves must be aware of their duty to their city. Only if they voice their wishes and participate in the process of finding solutions, will innovations arise that satisfy all parties and enhance the quality of life.

Smart cities – an appeal to citizens

Digitization can be a decisive factor in enhancing the quality of life in our cities – provided those who live in cities actively participate in the process. Here are three examples that illustrate how this is already happening.

  • There are digital platforms on which citizens can network with others in their own district and from neighbouring ones, where they can share ideas and represent their interests. The advantage of these platforms is that they make our often all-too-anonymous city life more tangible – by allowing people to maintain a connection with a specific, relatively small "off-line" neighbourhood rather than lose that connection through purely digital forms of networking. Admittedly, one of the most frequently used functions on such platforms is likely to be the marketplace, where people can quickly get rid of cumbersome garden furniture or find a babysitter at short notice. But there is definitely potential for more – and even buying and selling brings people into contact.
  • Another potential solution is for companies to organize regular hackathons and start-up weekends focusing on the city of tomorrow. Such events bring together programmers, designers, marketeers and businesspeople from many different industries to brainstorm or develop prototypes within a limited space of time. Thus far, very few city councils have organized participative formats of this kind with a basic technological component – but that would be an important step forward. After all, open innovation and intelligent co-creation between companies, administrators and citizens – i.e., a variety of participants with diverse backgrounds, intentions and roles – can often give rise to the most well-thought-out and sustainable ideas, perhaps even a smart parking spot.
  • Then there's Jun, a city in Spain with a population of 3,500, more than half of whom are extremely active on Twitter. This social media platform is the method of choice for communicating with the local authorities. The local school's weekly canteen menu is distributed via Twitter, as is traffic information of relevance to everyone. You can make doctor's appointments and let the local trash collectors know about any dirt or refuse on the roads. This direct form of interaction not only enabled the city to cut its budget and structure its processes more efficiently, but also created a form of "digital democracy." Here in Germany, interaction with local authorities is less like Twitter and more like Snapchat: You send a message and it disappears. It is unclear, however, whether the experiences of a small Spanish town can be transposed to big cities.

When it comes to the digital transformation of cities, there is no one right solution; it is not about digitizing all analog processes one to one, but about the processes themselves evolving in the transition. Cities are extremely complex systems and comprise such a large number of different layers, use scenarios and structures that it is difficult to capture and understand all of them simultaneously. Cities want to remain (or become) relevant and livable and satisfy their inhabitants' demands for quality. To this end, the individual processes of the urban community need to be viewed holistically, and using digital expertise, from the standpoint of the individual user and transposed into the future. City dwellers must provide input by playing an active part, getting involved and wanting to change things.

In this way, cities will not only be digitally transformed, but will also become sustainably smart, and thus more lively and diverse. Digitization is not an end in itself – it must benefit people.

This text was originally published in the journal "Stadt- und Raumforschung" of the German Federal Institute of Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development. For the German version click here.