More Than Technology
About the authors: Ibrahim Atta-Apau is the director of digital transformation, and Mohannad Salam is senior strategist, smart cities, Middle East at Atkins Acuity, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group
Smart cities are not a new topic. Governments worldwide have long been considering how to embed connective technologies into their urban centres, and rightly so.
By 2050, it is estimated that roughly 70 per cent of people globally will be living in cities. This will bring huge challenges around waste, energy, crime, mobility and more, all of which require urgent solutions.
Yet despite the widespread discussion, ambiguity remains about what exactly ‘smart’ means in this context. Does it pertain to homes? Buildings? Transport? Infrastructure? Or is it just about technology? This uncertainty risks stymying progress.
As for the answer, in truth it is all of the above. In fact, the key element of any smart city project is determining how and where new technologies will have the greatest effect on the most important challenges that a city faces.
Prioritisation and partnership
This prioritisation approach can elevate a smart city beyond just connectivity to create a lasting uptick in vital areas such as sustainability, cost of living and quality of life. While priority areas will naturally vary from city to city – perhaps even district to district – the most successful projects will be those that ensure there is real impact behind every initiative.
Similarly, there needs to be a strong sense of partnership between humans and machines, with each augmenting, not replacing the other.
Take urban camera networks, for example. Nowadays, technological advances mean these networks can monitor a city 24/7, then use machine learning (ML) to analyse traffic flow, criminal activity or footfall. Yet crucially, any anomalies picked up by ML are immediately flagged to the control centre for action. This is a good example of effective, smart city integration, and one that a physical policing team could not emulate.
As for how many cities are achieving this transformation, progress is mixed.
There are early adopters, such as Dubai’s Smart Dubai initiative, which has seen the city transform its government services, reduction of carbon emissions and mobility infrastructure. Interestingly, this has also led to a 3 per cent increase in happiness among citizens.
Likewise, Barcelona has made solid strides towards becoming a smart city by creating a solid technology base with a noteworthy open-data portal, a good air quality sensor network, widespread public Wi-Fi and improved transport connectivity for residents and tourists alike.
Yet elsewhere obstacles persist, not least cost and benefit. Often, clients will look at the expense of a project – whether greenfield or brownfield – and
weigh it up against a far less tangible financial output. This, in turn, causes them to question its feasibility.
A change of mindset is necessary, with benefits viewed through a long-term qualitative lens and not a short-term economic one.
There is also the challenge of a wait-and-see mindset, with a number of clients preferring to discover the results of early adopter projects before kicking off their own. These clients could miss a golden opportunity to capitalise on implementing smart services while there are already major infrastructure works taking place in their cities.
This missed opportunity can result in falling so far behind the curve that the cost and disruption of trying to catch up later, when the market reaches maturity, may prove prohibitive. Rather than wondering whether they can afford to build a smart city now, they should be asking whether they can afford not to.
Scale, too, is a factor. While the process of converting an individual house into a smart home can be relatively simple, doing so for an entire city is far more expensive and complex. Funding, public-private collaboration and major infrastructure initiatives are required – much of which have understandably decelerated during the pandemic. And while there are positive signs of recovery, greater impetus is required to get progress back on track.
Finally, there is the issue of trust and security. When smart homes were first talked about a couple of years ago, most consumers were excited about them. However, very few were confident enough in the technology’s security, practicality and efficiency to purchase it.
The same is now true of smart cities. Whether it is due to the potential risk of cybercrime or questions about data privacy and protection, many people continue to harbour concerns about the security of living in a world of connected systems.
Enhanced regulations and certification programmes for smart and connected devices should be prioritised. And while planners, engineers and designers must highlight the risks to clients, they should also be clear about the value of future-proofing now rather than retrofitting in future.
While future-proofing the city itself is part of the story, there is also a need to future-proof the planet. As we all know, the environmental emergency is critical and requires a coordinated global effort to tackle it. Sustainability strategies and ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets, such as the ‘UAE Net Zero by 2050’ initiative, should therefore be included in every smart city project.
The good news is that many of the technologies required to do so already exist. Digital twins, for example, are a great way to enable better analysis of a city’s predicted benefits at a more macro level, sitting on top of a physical asset that drives accurate, data-driven decision-making about how to make itself even smarter in the future.
Here the role of the designer is especially important. As long as the project brief is structured and clear, working with the supply chain on the build itself should be straightforward.
The magic happens when the designer gains a deep understanding of the city’s individual socioeconomic and environmental objectives and challenges, then uses technology and connectivity to solve these challenges at the earliest stage of a project.
Yet despite their exciting potential, we must also accept that digital solutions can only take us so far on this journey. Technology may be the building block on which smart cities are built today. But factors such as quality of life, economic growth, efficiency and sustainability are all essential considerations for ensuring that the benefits of a smart city last long into tomorrow.