If technology is the answer to Smart Cities, what is the question?

1st May 2015

Earlier this week I attended the 4th annual Smart to Future Cities event in London. I was attracted to the conference by the mix of attendees, and the fact that the majority of speakers were city authorities and councils and not technology vendors pushing their products (although technology or more precisely technology adoption still dominated the discussion).

If smart cities and their associated technologies hold so much potential, asked the speakers, why can’t we see wide spread adoption of these technologies in cities around the world? Is it all just techwash? One speaker, paraphrasing Cedric Price asked ‘if technology is the answer, what is the question?’

As it turns out smart city questions are complex and numerous: ‘can carbon emissions be lowered while providing more power to a growing population?’, ‘can traffic be re-routed in real-time and reduce pollution?’, ‘can congestion on the roads be reduced through more efficient parking schemes?’. Technology can provide answers to all these and many other complex questions, all of which should help make our cities better places to live in. Many examples were given of smart city projects across the globe from autonomous cars in Milton Keynes to smart waste management in Santander, all of which show that technology can provide the answer.

However, obstacles still remain Despite clear benefits it is still not clear who will pay for these solutions. In a panel discussion Joe Dignan (Future City Catapult) argued the best way to overcome these barriers is to follow the “build-it-and-they-will-come” strategy (I’m paraphrasing both Joe and the Field of Dreams).

There are certainly huge benefits in this approach and Nominet has experienced this first hand with the Oxford Flood Network. Starting with a real Internet of Things solution to a real world problem has not only provided many valuable lessons it has also accelerated conversations with partners, collaborators, government, universities and potential customers.

Build-it-and-they-will-come requires an initial investment from somewhere; typically this comes from private companies (such as Nominet) often in partnership with central and local government. While this is great for demonstrators and R&D trials it doesn’t provide a sustainable model for widespread smart city adoption.

Meanwhile Gartner places the Internet of Things (Smart Cities technological cousin) at the top of the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ in its Hype Cycle, poised to plummet into the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. The discussion at the Smart City event about the difficulty around business cases may well be what tips Smart Cities and its related technologies down into the trough.

This is not the end of the road for Smart Cities, it will be left to those who can see past the disillusionment to persevere and build demonstrators and trials that not only prove the technology but also prove the business case for wide scale deployment.

The current situation with Smart City and Internet of Things adoption puts me in mind of this quote from Bill Gates:

 “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction”