Innovation in Smart Cities of the future - Part XII, Paradigm Shift

A few safety cameras in the city of Boston. The images they collect can be used for analyses of traffic, detecting flow of people and their whereabouts...and much more. Sharing data and leveraging on them is crucial for Smart Cities. Credit: Informedinfrastructures

There are thousands of Apps supporting a variety of information/services, most targeting a specific city. Sharing a data framework can make reuse of these apps possible, decreasing investment and more important bettering them. Credit: SmartCitiesCouncil App Gallery

City of Trento, changing the management processes as enabler for a smarter city. Credit: City of Trento

Involving youngsters and schools is a very effective way to evolve the culture and to make a smart city project a citizens project. Credit: Istituto Buonarroti, Trento

The estimate of spending to make cities around the world smarter is impressive and shows a clear increase over the next few years. By collaboration cities can spend less and get better and faster results. This is the aim of the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative. Credit: Pike Research

Researchers are attracted by the very best, by what is not yet available and that could be achieved tomorrow in their labs. The problem is that making a city smarter is not about developing a demo. 

What is deployed needs to work, needs to be maintained and we measure its success on the bases of its actual use.

Equally important, the deployment has to be economically feasible, and given the limited economic resources, what is being invested here is no longer available for investment there. Hence, the cheaper a solution is, the more likely it can be adopted by a city.  Of course being cheap and not working is not the point!

In this area I think we should learn form India and from its “frugal innovation”. Look at ways to innovate and at the same time keep expenditure to a minimum. And minimum does not mean 10% less than average but 60-80% less. In most cases this won’t be possible but aiming for 80% less is forcing you to approach the problem in a radically different way.

One approach is to first consider how to leverage on what is existing, rather than deploy something new. As an example, would it be possible to use citizens cell phones to do data collection and processing or do we really need to set up a new data center, deploy sensors, set up transmission lines?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper, faster, easier to involve citizens rather than creating a centralized infrastructure?

These are not easy questions but need to be asked.

We are no longer in the situation where resources are scarce and anything new we want to do would require the deployment of new resources. In most cases there is plenty out there, we need to learn how to use it.

A Municipality can take the tab for data transmission from smart phones to use them to harvest data. By providing, let’s say 2GB of free data traffic you can stimulate citizens to share their devices. Similar thing can be done with cars, taxis….

The deployment of new stuff should be the very last option to consider.

I know, there are strong pressures from manufactures that need to sell new stuff. They will provide hundreds of reasons why getting (their) stuff is the best solution. Involve the Universities, involve small companies, support start ups to find “out of the box” solutions.

The figures of investment in the smartification of cities differ depending on the source but they all are in the tens of billions of US$ per year worldwide.

How much of this is overlapping in terms of solutions? How many times are we reinventing the wheel?

The IEEE Smart Cities Initiatives has been designed to share information, best practices and also to share applications, software, data, data centers, competences, people. 

Don’t be afraid to copy. Copy, adapt to your own city, in the process make it better and then open it up so that other cities can benefit from this. They are likely to find a way to better your solution and you will be able to re-use their improved solution on your turf. Opening up can start a virtuous spiral.

Look at the softwarization of your city, and as you do that you’ll understand that a new app, a new release of software can be downloaded on your city and can make it better.

You are going to benefit from experience of thousands of other cities, you are multiplying your resources a thousand fold.

Municipalities have a tremendous power in setting the vision, sharing it, getting citizens on board. They should use this power to enable the transformation, herding the many players we have seen. Each of them has its own agenda, and the very existence of personal agendas is what makes sure people are really working to achieve it.

And, of course, Municipalities cannot just sell the vision. They have to enact the vision. They cannot just subscribe to the concept of open data, they have to set up the regulatory framework supporting open data in their domain and need to open their data.

This is what has happened in Trento, and we have seen the impact. Leading by example has “forced”, in a graceful way, several enterprises to go along, adding their data to the regional open data repository, and its growth has stimulated third parties to make use of those data creating services.

An obvious step was to involve teachers, and then students in the initiative. To organize challenges for start ups and students to exploit the data. At the last challenge we have seen the participation of over 1,000 people from over 40 Countries. The winners got a bit of money but most important they got the opportunity to transform their idea into reality, with local coaching, and had access to a captive market as first sale.

Municipalities are spending their citizens’ money. And citizens need to know what’s in it for them. They want to experience the effect of this spending soon, not in 4 years time. Clearly a Municipality and politicians have longer term responsibility as well. However, they need to balance the short term with the longer term. 

Short-term impact fuels credibility for long term action.

In Trento a decision was taken to involve not just university students in city projects but also high school students. In particular a link was established between the EIT Digital and Istituto Buonarroti, a few of its teachers and a few of its classes. Seminars and joint projects are being carried out and this raises the awareness and most important involves the young generation. This is good for two reasons: we are building cities that they will inhabit and secondly the young generation can become the evangelist of change generating cultural ripples that involve other parts of the population.

Summing up, the smartification of cities mobilize a lot of economic resources. This should not be read as “the smartification of cities costs a lot”. Although this is true, it is just part of the truth. 

We have to look at the global picture, we need to make sure that what we spend is an investment and that as any investment it has to generate revenues.

Our investment should create a visible, measurable, perceivable impact. And it should attract innovators, should create biz opportunities that in turns create a multiplying effect. 

For any $ the municipality invest we should mobilize at least 5$ and generate 10$.  As I noted, in many cases we can use that 1$ to adapt and ameliorate something that is available, here in my city or in another city. 

Doing what needs to be done every time starting from scratch would probably cost ten times as much, and when it costs that much you are basically killing your investment: you are left with a cost. You are not able to generate the 5 and 10 multipliers. 

Of course, take these numbers as back of the napkin figure. Sometimes the multiplier will be higher, sometimes lower but it should be there!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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