What is a smart city?

Written by Dave Ferguson

Part 1 out of 2

Alex Knight on Unsplash

What is a smart city or community?

Well, there is no fixed definition, it means different things for different places.

There is something about the connectivity and infrastructure, how we use it and make it available to everyone. The quality of our networks vary nationally, but we are investing heavily in extending superfast broadband to rural areas and only hard to reach remote locations will remain unconnected. Different and new technologies like 5G could be the answer and is being piloted now. One example of how excellent broadband infrastructure supports remote places are the Outer Hebrides where 5 subsea cables have been laid and the islands now have up to 80Mbs download speeds.

Importantly we need to understand the levels of energy we use and the link to tackling climate change and how technology helps us to minimise our carbon footprint. This is about smart meters, controlling buildings remotely, using better construction materials and being aware of the cycle of materials and the waste we produce. It’s also important to start thinking about the infrastructure and future housing construction needs with developers at the planning stage. Houses of the future could, and in fact are in some cases, being part built in a factory with tech built in, ready for assembly on site. This has many advantages of higher specification and accuracy, efficiency and cost reductions in the build with future proofed tech qualities.

As our communities’ age and we have more elderly residents with complex care needs, we need to meet the financial gap. Technology has a part to play in helping people to remain independent in their own homes. We are increasingly seeing voice technology help tackle digital and social inclusion and this is set to grow and expand as a great opportunity space in the care sector.

With congestion ever increasing on our roads, government has made some brave commitments to new electric vehicle technology. This will have a great impact on air quality and improve health and wellbeing for the residents in our cities. The capability improves daily, with Tesla planning electric haulage vehicles and big players in the logistics market like Amazon have already made advanced orders. Common place in larger cities are smart car parks, seeing spaces available and managing the flow of traffic using smart lanes.

More people are working from home than ever before and the whole employment market has transformed in the last 30 years, largely due to the technology we use and growth in our communications capability. The majority of us have smart phones with significantly more computing ability than NASA had to put men on the moon. These are now powerful pocket computers that are able to function as a full office, helping us keep in touch by voice, video, email and social media. We use them to control our homes, navigate and manage our daily lives. As our population ages, we are approaching a time where, virtually, the whole community will be digitally literate and using technology very differently.

Wearables are now a thing and smart watches are common place, leaving our phones in our pockets and receiving notifications and updates straight to our wrist. We can now monitor our health and wellbeing in real time using these devices and will be increasingly important in the support to the health sector to monitor and manage chronic complex conditions without taking up hospital beds.

The biggest change of all is data and lots of it, perhaps too much and how do we make sense of it, use it and make it available. We need to understand its value both commercially and the ability to deliver outcomes. The opportunity is massive to be able to predict and manage traffic congestion, health issues, crime, energy use and development. Big data can take many forms but it is fair to say we are seeing examples of places like Lambeth that are making data available to everyone.

But in all of this is the constant need to develop our approach to privacy and security as we expand the use of the internet and add artificial intelligence and machine learning. Because of this, there are great ethical considerations for the decisions we allow machines to make.

So, what’s a smart city? That’s a local choice, pick and mix from all of the above and more that we don’t yet know. There are some great projects running in the UK to support the drive for smart communities and I’ll share some of them in my next Blog.

Read next time what we’re doing and what this means for North East Lincolnshire.