Opening a panel at Connected Britain 2021, Redouane Ali, principal consultant at Cartesian, explained how, generally, when we discuss smart cities and smart technology, it is through the lens of the IoT and infrastructure. Consequently, many forget about smart cities’ ability to improve the lives of residents. In her second piece on smart cities, Kiera Sowery focuses on the challenges of establishing the right urban innovations for citizens.
Redouane Ali asked the panellists: how do we go about ensuring that smart city solutions both serve the needs of citizens and ensure that those members of the general public are involved in planning them?
Beginning the discussion, Deirdre Furguson, senior smart city consultant for Belfast City Council, explained what Belfast have been doing in terms of smart cities: “Belfast is looking at how it can fix the citizen at the heart of smart.”
Furguson, referring to the Belfast Agenda, stated that through working with community groups and associations, Belfast can delve into its city neighbourhoods to gain further understanding of its citizens and how they can engage with such an agenda. “It’s through those processes that we’re developing ethical frameworks so we can move ahead and develop a manifesto.”
Through this work, Belfast’s ambition is to set up the Citizen Office of Data Ethics (CODE) to enable those citizens who are prepared to be upskilled and work with the city as ‘citizen scientists’. Approaches such as this are there to reinforce the knowledge that is needed from the public sector to allow Belfast to collaborate and co-create with its citizens.
The real starting point in terms of bringing technology and data science into play is to address the ambitions of Belfast’s citizens – as well as the challenges that they have set out – to ensure that they are at the heart of Belfast’s plans for its future.
Belfast is working to hold a public data panel that will allow citizens to ask any questions they have about data (such as queries regarding privacy) and therefore help Belfast City Council’s understanding of the challenges that are specific to establishing itself as a smart city.
Another example of a project that Belfast is working on currently is a collaboration with Connected Places Catapult, part of the Homes for Healthy Ageing Programme, making it one of the first cities to be running a testbed for tackling the isolation and loneliness of over 65-year-olds.
“We’re working with that collaboration locally, and with Catapult, to be sensitive in terms of that particular issue. [We’re looking at] how we work with our citizens and learn from them about the data that they’d be comfortable with sharing, and also to help identify the types of technologies and devices that will help overcome their sense of loneliness and isolation,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson added: “We are making sure we consider their concerns and their issues – we’ve developed technologies to deal with those issues that they have at hand.”
Nathan Pierce, head of the Smart London Team, Greater London Authority noted that smart city technologies are not purchased in isolation: they are part of a care, maintenance or streetlighting contract, to name just some examples. This makes it impractical to have a public conversation relating to every single aspect of technology that a city plans to buy.
What ends up happening instead is that IoT technology tends to seep into daily life, and appears on someone’s street one day, leaving people questioning where it came from and what it’s doing. For Pierce, this makes it difficult to provide any clear answers in terms of how urban authorities should involve people in the engagement around smart cities.
Instead, Greater London Authority has been driven by the Smart London Together Roadmap, a strategy for London put forward by Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London. The strategy uses user-centred design, working with London Boroughs, public sector agencies, housing associations, and developers – ensuring the user is put at the centre of plans.
Pierce added: “Another big thing for us is obviously digital inclusion, making sure that the benefits of this technology are there for everybody.
“I think we’ve seen during the pandemic that there is a real divide between people who have access to digital technology and internet and people who don’t.”
The panellists agreed on the importance of having the citizen at the centre of smart city innovation. “In terms of involving the citizen,” said Pierce, “it should be part of our DNA to make sure the citizen is put first when it comes to designing new services and using technology as part of those services.”
Simon Haston, chief technology innovation officer at BT’s Regions and Developed Government stated: “Smart technology rollout is about making people’s lives easier, more effective, and safer.”
In response to Pierce, Haston explained how the majority of industrialised IoT and smart city concepts fail because we end up with a multitude of different platforms that need to be managed, and different security protocols that must be adhered to, which are hard to manage and keep track of.
Haston then referred to the work that has already been done in Geneva, explaining how the Swedish city has built a sort of centralised system from the ground up. This was through looking at their infrastructure and building blocks that go into it – in terms of hardware, software and security – to enable them to come up with a “compelling solution”.
“They can put any type of IoT onto their platform and the citizen can ask for absolutely anything,” explained Haston.
Geneva can roll out pretty much any type of advanced technology incredibly quickly due to the policy that they have in place. After all, they already have the fibre in the ground and the heavy utility required.
Citizens in Geneva can use smart technologies to actively prevent lake floods from happening thanks to its infrastructure allowing the monitoring of snowfall and rainfall.
This is one of the many instances of smart city infrastructure improving the lives of citizens. And another example can be seen in how Belfast is encouraging a change in its citizens’ habits and building trust by improving its cycle pathways using the IoT. Belfast works with See.Sense, a company bringing together technology, data, and people to make cycling safer and better.
Belfast used See.Sense’s devices on bikes within the city centre to anonymously collect cyclists’ data. The project revolved around consent from citizens and they had fun, feeling involved and knowing they were benefiting from the rewards.
Said Furguson: “We were able to demonstrate that by being involved in one of these smart city projects, citizens were able to actually change the city for their benefit, and the sharing of their data, albeit anonymously in this project, was something that they saw benefits in.”
Adding to this, Haston stressed the importance of businesses ensuring that they are inherently secure and focus on the way that technology is going digital. Such thinking makes data security more manageable, as datacentres will be able to process the information. Of course, you are still going to get people trying to get around security measures, but it is nevertheless critical that businesses have such systems in place, and so it doesn’t slow processes down.
“We need to constantly innovate around security,” concluded Hatton.
Ultimately, the panel demonstrated the importance of involving, educating, and listening to citizens when innovating smart cities, as well as the vital role that having a strong cybersecurity network plays for businesses.
Pierce concluded that going forward, to be successful, cities should steer away from feeling as if they need to test and trial all technologies themselves. Instead, they should be considering the existing ideas that other cities, areas, and boroughs have already benefited from.
“The cities that race ahead,” said Pierce, “are the ones where the person in charge of such programs really gets it and gets behind the program. They are willing to take risk by putting money into it.”