February 2013 meeting: Smart Cities

Smart Cities, 20 February 2013

WiTT’s first meeting of 2013, on February 20th, featured a panel discussion on the topic of Smart Cities. The meeting was hosted by Charles Russell, at Fleet Place in London. Ian Taylor, former MP and Science Minister, chaired the session. Our panelists were:

  • Svetlana Grant, Director, Smart Cities, Connected Living Programme, GSMA;
  • Linda Chandler, Enterprise Architect, Microsoft Services Enterprise Strategy;
  • Patrick Razavet, CEO, Elutions Europe & MEA;
  • Catherine Mulligan, Research Fellow, Imperial College; and
  • Malcolm Dowden, Consultant, Charles Russell.

Ian launched the meeting by asking the panel to consider the need for smart cities to be inclusive cities; they mustn’t just be for people who think they’re smart. Ian also often heard concerns in Parliament about the concept of smart cities: this technology can do something TO you, not FOR you. We still need to convince others this is worth doing.

Each panelist had a few minutes for her/his own comments before discussion and Q&A.

Svetlana Grant talked about the GSMA’s Connected Living Program, which started to look at Smart Cities 18 months ago. The program seeks to understand cities’ requirements and where the barriers to Smart Cities are: In the technology? Society? Standards? Gaining consensus?

One area of interest is the interaction between person and machine Is it a wearable device? What can you do with information about an individual’s blood glucose levels, for example? There are many different ways of providing value.

Linda Chandler discussed Microsoft’s work with the Transport for London Olympic travel demand management team. If companies change their habits, such as allowing more telecommuting, what’s the impact? The team also explored the concepts of working hubs, and work as a place vs. an activity. Right now we have debate around BYOD (bring your own device); what about BYO office? How can technology change the future of work?

Patrick Razavet focused on how cities can maintain a better quality of life for its citizens by optimizing its assets, such as water or transport. We’re recognize that we’re wasteful as a society. But it takes a long time to change behavior. One short cut is to use technology to improve efficiency.

Although sensors can convert activities to data/information/process, it often stops there: no solution is really provided. We need a fourth component: control. If we have the ability to send instructions back it’s possible to capture value. Then we can change assets, activities, and behaviors.

This should be feasible, since in the last 10-20 years storage prices have collapsed; processing power is also more affordable now. And battery technology is improving. Elutions is working with the 1,000 largest energy users to apply technology to help them save on their environmental footprint, starting with smart buildings.

Catherine Mulligan started her remarks with a quote from Plato: This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are. Imperial College’s Digital Cities Exchange Project is based on the idea that by connecting citizens, business and government to real-time intelligence and enabling ‘smart’ decision making, we can revolutionize almost every aspect of our everyday lives. The project aims to create feedback loops to make infrastructure work better.

Malcolm Dowden had spend the five weeks before our event in India, where “the essence of every day life is just coping.” His trip focused his mind around the problems of mega-cities: within a few decades, there will be a number of cities with populations of more than 30 million or more. There is a question around whether the concepts of smart cities will address the problems these cities will face, such as creating enough power. Centralized systems, for example, use enormous amounts of power. While a smart fridge might tell us when it’s time to buy more cheese, it won’t solve the problems of seven billion people in too small a space.

Other topics of discussion included:

remembering that smart cities won’t just be new builds; regeneration will be a large question, especially in older cities;

security issues: cybercrime and confidentiality are both areas of concern, especially for government today;

the cost of energy: Patrick Razavet believes we are wasteful in part because energy is not expensive enough. If you want to wake consciences you need a crisis. Today, the average household spends £1,200 a year on energy; the average income is £22,000 a year. By the end of the decade energy spend will be £2,000/year. When 10% of income goes on energy, it will become a very public matter.

how to make the move to more efficient systems easy and consumer-focused: Linda Chandler mentioned the concept of a Home OS being looked at in Microsoft Research: buy any gadget and plug it in, and it can be managed by a central dashboard. The challenge is how to make it simple for the consumer to understand.

A member of the audience noted that there seems to be an aversion to the expression “smart” cities; what would the panel prefer we all talked about? The answers? Self-sustaining/sustainable. Livable. Frugal and sustaining. and Sustainable.