The Future of Smart Cities


How have the changes to urban living and working, caused by the covid pandemic, affected plans for smart cities? City center office blocks are standing empty, and residents are flocking to suburbs or rural areas. So does this mean plans to deploy technology to improve urban quality of life and deliver municipal services are on hold? Or is a rethought strategy necessary to ensure smart city projects are up to the task of tackling new challenges that have emerged?

This is the subject of a conversation I recently held for The Element podcast. My guests were Lorenzo Gonzales, a strategist for HPE global sales, and Yanick Pouffary, chief technologist for HPE Pointnext. We tackled questions ranging from how thinking on smart cities has evolved since the start of the Coronavirus outbreak to whether we will be living in cities at all – let alone smart cities – in the near future.

One thing that everyone can agree on is the need for city planning and resourcing to factor in the danger of future pandemic outbreaks going forward. Resilience is an important keyword when discussing this topic, and this could involve recognizing the need for a greater amount of personal space around individuals, in workplaces, leisure venues, on the streets, and on public transport. Beyond that, it also means building organizations that can be managed effectively through remote workforces.

Another indicator of the direction smart city strategies are likely to shift to is agreement on the fact that, in order to navigate these tumultuous changes, we need to understand them.

This, of course, requires data. Core to the smart city philosophy is the concept of measuring and recording human movement and activity throughout the urban environment while managing the essential privacy and security issues.

As Gonzalez points out, “You need the data to understand how people are living in the new context. You need the flexibility that only digital services can give to you in order to provide what business and citizens need."

So, it seems that the fundamentals of pre-covid thought around what smart cities are and how they operate mean the concept can survive the pandemic and hopefully help us move past it. But clearly, changes are needed to cope with shifting priorities. 

Pouffary says she recognizes two categories of challenges here. Firstly, there are the obvious public health and safety issues, in that the focus of smart city research and development will switch towards reducing the danger posed by communicable diseases.

The second set of challenges will be around technology itself and ensuring there is sufficient understanding, buy-in, and resources dedicated to strategy, development, and deployment:

“The pandemic is accelerating the need for change but it’s also accelerating the requirement to be very pragmatic in how you address these big transformations. A reset has occurred … Covid has blown away established thinking, and for cities to be successful … they need to leverage technology.”

When it comes to considering what specific technology trends will provide solutions to these challenges, it makes sense that we will need to see increased investment in the "cloud and edge" model. This gives us the capability to use edge devices and sensors to understand the behavior of people, which can help to address issues around privacy as less personal information is processed and stored on cloud servers. It also frees up cloud capacity to crunch through the large volumes of mostly anonymized data from a myriad of sources that will let us understand the big picture.

"You have to learn from the actual actions. The actual situations that your citizens are operating under" says Pouffary. "You need to be able to bring the digital operating environment [and] the physical world so that you can augment the value and deliver the right services at the right time."

She points to Dehradun, India, as a city where HPE is working to deliver smart city initiatives that address emerging health threats. An Integrated Command and Control Center has been established to monitor data from all relevant sources, and facial recognition technology has been used to monitor areas under quarantine conditions. Authorities can be quickly alerted to areas where breaches are occurring, or dangerous situations are developing, and resources can be distributed to tackle them.

This raises the point that smart city technology needs to be deployed with consideration for local feeling and culture, but it’s true that there’s no one-size-fits-all template for turning a city smart. What will work in an ancient metropolis like Rome might not work in an environment that has sprung to life in the past century, such as Dubai.

This means smart city rollout generally has to be coordinated on a locale-by-locale basis – giving rise to the role of “master systems integrator” (MSI). MSI is a term that originated in the building industry, but the role also scales to city-wide projects. This is a person or persons with an understanding of the specific requirements and challenges posed by an urban area and working with multiple agencies to create case studies and coordinate projects. Their goal is to ensure all elements of smart city infrastructure achieve their strategic objectives while working efficiently with each other. After all, it's easy to see how data gathered by, for example, automated traffic management systems may be useful in designing systems to manage pedestrian congestion, so why deploy two camera networks?

Pouffary says, “All of these cities … if they started their journey towards smarter services, they have capabilities which can then be repurposed for both addressing the pandemic and enabling them to scale to the next set of requirements.”

A final point we all agreed on – the entire purpose of smart cities and their reason to exist – serving the needs of people – will be invalid without one key ingredient – trust.

Smart city dwellers need to be able to trust the fact that these systems work and are operated entirely with their best interests in mind. Allowing them to be subverted by political or corporate interests would be disastrous when consenting data sharing is so integral to their effectiveness.