Get ready for a brave new world

Get ready for a brave new world

The creation of ‘intelligent cities’ – ultra-modern urban hubs that maximise efficiency, minimise waste and enhance the lives of citizens – may be closer than we think, writes BQ’s Ken Oxley

IMAGINE arriving in a traffic jam-free city centre in a self-driving car, to be directed by computerised signs to the most convenient parking space.

Having glided effortlessly through pristine streets devoid of litter, you notice lights in office buildings automatically switching off as staff leave for the night.

As you walk to a restaurant to meet friends, past billboards that tempt you with personalised offers, you remember you forgot to switch off the central heating and don’t expect to be home before midnight.

No problem. You reach for your smart phone and do it remotely, then set your electric blanket to come on at 11.30pm. 

If all of this sounds a little too Minority Report for your liking, you might want to stop reading now because, according to the world’s leading technology experts, this is where society is heading.

Whilst the term Intelligent or Smart Cities was first coined as far back as the early 90s, it’s only now that we’re beginning to get a sense of what this really means in practice.

And not just in the world’s most powerful capital cities either, but here in Yorkshire.

Indeed Bradford hosted an Intelligent Cities conference in July, bringing together some of world’s leading future-gazers to discuss the shape of things to come.

Much of what came out of that event will be on the agenda in November at the NextGen 14 conference in neighbouring Derbyshire, with many of those who spoke in Bradford taking part.

One such speaker is Julia Glidden, Managing Director of London-based 21c Consultancy

An internationally renowned expert in ICT trends, Julia is on a mission to demystify a concept that, for many of us, is confusingly abstract? So what, exactly, does the term ‘intelligent cities’ mean?  

The easy answer is a city that is quite simply more efficient; an environmentally-friendly centre for commerce and culture, retail and consumerism that maximises productivity and minimises waste.

Julia GliddenJulia believes this Utopian vision is achievable – but will only be realised if there is a transfer of power from bureaucrats and large corporations to ordinary people.

“Bureaucracy came about because it was better than chaos, and it enabled us to manage scale. But in the 21st century we don’t need that,” she explains.

“Intelligent cities will use modern technology to leverage their greatest asset – their citizens – to improve efficiencies and enhance people’s lives.

“These days almost everyone has more computer technology built into their smart phone than that which sent man to the moon

“That’s why I’m convinced the future will be about collaboration and people power – governments will have less to do.

“The old model of them taking money from us (in taxes) and giving us back what we need in services will be outdated.”

Julia cites the website FixMyStreet, which enables people to report problems such as fly-tipping, potholes and faulty street lights, as an example of her vision of citizen-led smart technology.

But, of course, these ideas will only take flight if they are embraced by the current power brokers in politics and business.

The outlook for Yorkshire looks promising. The Coalition Government’s recent announcement of a scheme to regenerate the North of England, with investment in public transport, infrastructure, science and technology, is a step in the right direction.

David Brunnen, Editor of Groupe Intellex, an international publication specialising in new technology transfer, welcomes extra investment but believes real change needs to come from within. And for that, a change of mindset is needed, especially among the region’s local authorities.

He advocates the notion of them behaving more like businesses – something he refers to as Municipal Enterprise which, he insists, is not an oxymoron.

“The North East might seem like an unlikely place for the idea of Municipal Enterprise to take root, but I think it’s something that could work here,” he says.

“Intelligent cities and communities don’t just happen by accident. The come about out of necessity – usually because of a problem such as industrial decline or young, talented people leaving due to a lack of opportunities.

“That’s why we need to put the authority back into local authorities…too many have become service agents when, in fact, they could be working with the private sector to create growth and jobs.”

Mark Clayton, Strategy Officer at Bradford Council, shares Julia Glidden’s overall vision, but stresses the importance of analysing all the available data in key areas where improvements are sought before taking action

He explains: “The general accepted view is that intelligent cities use technology to enhance the quality of life of citizens.

“However, this can only be achieved by collecting, interrogating and interpreting data to improve resource efficiencies, minimise waste, save money and better manage complex systems such as transport networks, energy, waste, water and public health services.

“It’s set against a world in which ownership of smart mobile devices connected to the internet is growing exponentially and where citizens and consumers are increasingly voting with their fingertips.”

It might seem that the drive towards smarter cities is an inevitable consequence of the digital explosion over the past decade, a revolution that has led to the accumulation of so-called Big Data that is exciting and – at times – confounding teams of analysts seeking to unlock its secrets.

However, the pressure has been building for some time with many cities simply unable to keep pace with their own expansion. And if predictions are accurate, the situation will only get worse unless society acts. By 2050 it is estimated that 75% of the world’s population will live in cities – putting an intolerable strain on already stretched transport networks, emergency services and utilities.

Professor David Gann, head of Imperial College London’s Digital Economy Lab, summed up the gravity of the situation recently when he said: “Cities are reaching breaking point. Traffic jams are getting worse, queues longer, transport networks are more prone to delays and power outages are becoming more common.”

Just Like Julia Glidden, Mark Clayton believes these issues can only be addressed effectively by harnessing the technology at our fingertips.

Masdar Plaza02

“Cities across the world face many common issues,” he says. “These include economic development, demographic change, competition for finite resources, and ever increasing resident expectations coupled with reducing budgets – in short, the need to do less with more.”

The technology-driven smart city Mark and others like him envisage involves networking every part of a city so that interconnected systems are measuring, monitoring and analysing data about everything – people, retail activity, waste collection, public transport timetables, weather conditions, energy usage and so on.

Is it an achievable goal? Technology giants IBM certainly seem to think so. The company has some 2,500 smarter cities projects around the world and has even trademarked the term “smarter cities”.

One such project – in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro – features a Nasa-style control room where banks of screens gather data from sensors and cameras located around the city. Similar schemes, focusing predominantly on traffic management, operate in Singapore, Stockholm and across California. 

In the oil-rich Arab state of Abu Dhabi they have gone several steps further with the creation, from scratch, of the world’s first zero-carbon city. Masdar, which won’t be completed for another five to 10 years, will be a car-free zone with homes and buildings – all of them low-rise – powered by the sun.

It’s a nice idea, but one we can’t hope to emulate here in the UK, insists Nada Nohrova, a research at London’s Centre for Cities.

“We can’t do what new cities are doing,’ she says. “Our cities grew up over hundreds of years and are very complex. We have to devise different solutions to suit different cities – it can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ scenario because that won’t work.”

Nada is also a little sceptical about the Rio model. She points out that the IBM-backed command centre has come in for criticism, described by some commentators as ‘just people looking at TV screens’.

She doesn’t think this top-down – some might say Orwellian – approach would be acceptable, let alone successful, in the UK. Instead, she believes the way forward is to push for greater collaboration between key stakeholders.

“At Centre for Cities, our aim is to improve the performance of our city economies in key areas such as employment, business, skills and education,” she says.

“We have published a briefing paper exploring the smart cities agenda which looks at the reasons behind the slow take up. One of the main problems is a lack of focus which is causing confusion and uncertainty amongst cities – they are unsure where to start, which sectors to target and which initiatives to implement.

“If the UK cities are to become smart, a high level of co-ordination and co-working will be required between and within cities, government departments, the private sector and communities.”

For Andrew Macdonald, Director of NextGen Events Ltd, which organised Bradford’s conference and is also behind the forthcoming event in Derby, the availability of superfast broadband is the catalyst that will make intelligent cities a reality.

He says: “Super-connectedness will provide businesses with a platform for economic growth – put simply, it’s a case of, ‘I have a road, so now I can trade’ because being geared up to do business is vital if we want to create intelligent cities.

“Bradford has a fantastic manufacturing base, and it has an available workforce and low ground rents, which are attractive to investors. The problem is that it does not have the required connectivity, so big business is put off.

“You need that connectivity, not just to attract new business but to encourage start-ups. And if you don’t have it, you start losing your best talent.”

Whether that issue will be adequately addressed by chancellor George Osborne’s plans to increase expenditure in the North East remains to be seen.

However, the impetus for growth in Yorkshire’s urban and rural communities must come from within, says John Duncan, of Super Connected Cities at Leeds City Council.

He says: “What we’re aiming for is using technology to support people’s lives. And that means everyone, wherever they live.

“We have been working side-by-side with the Superfast West Yorkshire team, which is looking at the issues faced in rural areas.

So, does John think Yorkshire’s cities can be serious players in this brave new world?

“I don’t see any reason why not,” he insists, “Why can’t we be a forerunner? Why do we have to be in anyone’s shadow? We just need to get the infrastructure in place.

“Leeds is the third largest financial capital outside London – we have some great technology stories to tell. There are around 20 suppliers offering digital support to our companies.”

Like David Brunnen, 21c’s Julia Glidden agrees a change of mindset is needed for intelligent cities to take off. But she remains convinced that the necessary changes will come…and be widely accepted.

She says: “A little over 16 years ago Google did not exist. Now most of us can’t imagine life without it.

“So, yes, change will come. It’s impossible to say exactly what the future will look like, but it will certainly be more collaborative, more open and transparent, and have less boundaries.

“People will be empowered, but that power will come with responsibility. Ultimately, if we take that responsibility seriously and exercise our power wisely, the new technologies at our fingertips have the potential to bring us even closer together as communities.”