News - January 15, 2020

Smart Cities – The hidden challenge of digital transformation

Written by Expert Dr. Bénédicte Deryckere 10 min read

Last November and for the 9th consecutive year, Fira de Barcelona hosted the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC). More than 25,000 stakeholders from across the globe gathered to share goals and collaborate with the aim to tackle similar urban challenges.

This event is now regarded as the most important worldwide vitrine of what technology can do to enhance the quality of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities. 

But are smart cities just about smart tools to solve operational problems?

Since its inception in 2011, the SCEWC has brought forward technology and innovation as key transformational forces for shaping the much needed green and sustainable cities. Emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing or Blockchain have become central to the debates on urban planning and infrastructure, urban environment, mobility, energy efficiency and governance and funding.
Over the years, leading global consulting and technology firms such as Accenture, Cisco, Deloitte, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Siemens, were joined by key players in the telecommunications, transportation and energy sectors as sponsors and partners of the event. 

Together with a growing number of small pioneering technology innovators, they have gained momentum in showcasing an increasing number of solutions, from small proof-of-concept projects to large-scale implementations. This has made the event the most important worldwide vitrine of what technology can do for clean and smart energy use, smart city platforms, urban planning and smart buildings, and also for electric mobility, intelligent transports and the management of waste, water and air pollution.

Digital technologies transform cities into smart cities

Combining hardware, sensors, data storage, microprocessors and software, digitalization transforms urban products and assets such as cars, buses, tramways, bicycles, electric scooters, traffic lights, digital signage, kiosks, shelters, public waste bins, street lights, buildings, etc. into smart devices connected and embedded in broader systems and unified ecosystems. Coupled with the cloud in which product data is stored and applications are run, those digital solutions not only allow for a better management of urban products and processes but also help deliver dramatic improvements in functionality and efficiency as well as new experiences for residents and communities, visitors and tourists, local businesses, urban services and institutions.

The latest innovations in the smart city field were on display in the 45,000-m2 exhibition area, packed with networking spots and exhibitors demonstrating solutions to a large array of urban problems.

More than 400 solutions were presented in various areas such as: autonomous vehicles management solutions; intelligent digital signalling; city portal platforms to engage and connect citizens, visitors and business communities; smart parking solutions to check occupation of parking slots live on smart phones; applications informing electric car drivers about the closest available charging point; centralized city management software for urban assets such as street lights and buildings; connected solar lighting solutions; AI powered and big-data simulation solutions for planning and operating transport networks while optimizing traffic lights and reducing congestion; mobility hub services for multimodal mobility; smart waste management solutions combining sensors monitoring waste in real-time with analytics to optimize waste collection routes, pick-up frequencies and vehicle load; air pollution measurement and monitoring solutions; noise management solutions; IOT based disaster safety management for buildings; aerodynamic and thermal simulation solutions assessing indoor and outdoor air quality and comfort; face recognition solutions for automated city safety; smart materials development for buildings; etc.

But smart cities need to be more inclusive

However, smart cities are not just about smart tools to solve operational problems. Echoing the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Goal 11 to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, the congress was this year focusing on the necessity for smart cities to develop a vision, which would allow them to respond to the needs of all citizens, without leaving anybody behind.  At the center of the discussions were the multiple divides that are growing in cities across the world:  technologicaldigitalageeducationeconomicgender.

Are we clearly preparing the setting to promote inclusion? asked Elkin Velasquez, Regional Director at UN Habitat.

“We don't have to think of how to use technology for inclusion, but how to make technology inclusive”, added John Paul Farmer, Chief Technology Officer at city of New York. One third of the New Yorkers, he said, lack broadband access to the internet.

Technology must be seen as an enabler and we need to convince citizens that they need that technology”, stressed Elkin Velasquez.

Digital transformation can lead to social exclusion and we must be careful of bad policies”, warned Renata Avila, international human rights lawyer and digital rights expert, emphasising the need for a democratic inclusion coupled with work programs for children, seniors and emigrants.

Using the analogy of “Hollywood films with a lot of special effects but no story and no soul”, Suparno Banerjee, Nokia, strategic alliances VP and a recognized thought leader in smart cities and digital government, said technical projects do not mean anything if they do no have a purpose.

According to Sameh Wahba from the World Bank Group, ethos must be the core DNA of smart cities and we need to pursue the objectives of eradicating poverty in urban area and address economic and social exclusion.

One way to reach those objectives is through collaboration and sharing. We must gather people together, focus on inclusion and use data as insights, said Miguel Gamino, Executive Vice President for Global Cities at Mastercard. Collaboration and co-design is key and we need to ask to people to whom nobody asks, emphasized John Paul Farmer.  We need to put citizens at the heart of smart cities’ strategies. Technology is not everything, simplicity is key, the conference heard.

Dr. Shalini Rajneesh, who led the smart city project for the city of Tumakuru in India, said while we kept the UN SDGs at the core of our engagement, we included residents since the planning stage of the project. After a fruitful collaboration business, academia, citizens, NGOs, local and national governments, the city now offers high-tech classrooms to children; digitally connected citywide medical services; a digital library; solar powered air-conditioning solutions; a drone-based properties mapping tool and a single smart payment card allowing each resident to pay governmental taxes cashless. The city is also working on involving young voters to be part of the e-governance and civic governance.

  • What makes people happy in public spaces?
  • It’s a blend of possibilities and decisions: urban spaces have to understand what citizens need; they need to make people feel well, and diverse professional teams are essential to reach that horizon.

Dialogue between Martha Thorne, Dean of IE School of Architecture and Design (Madrid) and Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and Benedetta Tagliabue, Head architect at Miralles Tagliabue EMBT and Chairman of Fundació Enric Miralles.

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