Raconteur on Smart Cities – Building the 21st century city

Cities are home to more than half the world, but they need to change hugely if they are to continue to thrive, writes Mike Scott.

The rise of the city has been one of the great megatrends of the 21st century, and it is a trend that is likely to continue.

People are flocking to urban areas because that is where the opportunities are. The density  of population, buildings and other facilities creates economies of scale and an atmosphere of innovation that make cities the driving force of our economy.

In the UK, however, the rise of the city dates from the Industrial Revolution and we increasingly find ourselves locked in to infrastructure, ways of doing businesses and accessing public services that are looking outmoded and no longer fit for purpose.

This is partly because recent advances in technology have opened up a whole new world of possibilities to transform the way we travel, power our homes, access health care, education and other government services. “The urban space is where many of the solutions for a more sustainable world intersect,” points out Molly Webb, head of strategic engagement at The Climate Group. “The transport system, buildings, the power grid – they all come together in urban environments.”

We are reaching a new state of connectedness in our homes, workplaces and the goods we buy. This creates “an internet of things” – a digital overlay that provides opportunities for efficiencies across our cities. Aptly in this new age of coalition politics, many of these efficiencies will come from the joining together of sectors of the economy that up to now have been considered entirely separate.

Smart grids will allow our workplaces, homes, cars and even large infrastructure such as waste treatment or sewage plants to help power the city, for example, while “telepresence” will ease pressure on traffic networks by facilitating face-to-face contact over the internet.

A city’s transport system – along with many other aspects of its infrastructure – cannot function effectively unless it is safe, so public security is increasingly important, while the advent of electric vehicles will require not just a whole new physical infrastructure of charging points but an equivalent IT network able to identify vehicles and ensure payment.

We can entirely rethink what a city is and how it works in new eco-developments such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates and Dongtan in China.

But most people will not be living in these new cities by 2050, so we have to transform existing cities, too. There are many ways of doing this, but many cities are looking to a digital future to keep them competitive. Digital networks will not just transform public services – allowing NHS patients to be treated remotely, for example – but they will provide the basis for the new industries – media, biohealth, nanotechnology, clean energy – that so many of our cities believe can provide the backbone of their economies through the rest of the 21st century.

The lucky few are able to use major sporting events as a springboard for regeneration – Manchester is the exemplar here, having used its 2002 hosting of the Commonwealth Games to revive whole swathes of the region as well as carving out a niche as a sports economy for itself. In different ways, the organisers of the London Olympics in 2012 and the 2014 Commonwealth Games will be hoping for similar success.

Yet the interconnectedness of the city of the future creates challenges as well as the promise of huge benefits. A joined-up city requires a huge amount of integration and collaboration between aspects of the city that have not previously had much to do with each other. Early indications are that sharing information does not come easily to many organisations.

This lack of trust spills over into the relationship between providers and end users, who retain an innate suspicion about the motives of companies and public service organisations that want more information from them in the name of improving efficiency.

For the smart city to work efficiently, information needs to be as transparent and  accessible as possible, but customers remain suspicious that it will be misused. For both organisations and individuals, life in smart cities will require cultural and behavioural changes. Ironically, one of the main catalysts for the advent of smart cities could be the massive debts that are a legacy of the financial crisis. We may have no choice but to do things differently in order to ensure the system does not grind to a halt.

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