Joerg Firnkorn firmly believes that taking a quantitative approach is an essential aspect of inventing tomorrow’s ‘smart’ cities. He stresses that a smart city is all about use of data, following an open data policy so as to optimise resources.

‟A city becomes ‘smart’ when it knows how to use its data”

Interview with Joerg Firnkorn, a researcher specialising in sustainable mobility and the ‘smart city’. In 2012, having written his thesis at the University of Ulm in Germany on Daimler subsidiary car-sharing services provider Car2Go, he went to work at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Since March this year he has been working as a Research Fellow at the University of Ulm.

L’Atelier: You’re doing research into urban mobility and the smart city. However, the very concept of the ‘smart city’ is quite difficult to pin down. How would you define it in the most general terms?

Joerg Firnkorn: Well, it’s true that there’s no generic definition of the smart city, either in industry or in the academic world. Everyone uses the term in relation to his/her own needs. Personally, I think we should differentiate between what a smart city is in the long term – what I would call a strategic vision – and what can be done in the short term – the technical vision.

By ‘long term’ I mean around thirty years. That will enable the city to build a consistent strategy combining all its components: public services, civic engagement, economic dynamism, transportation and resources. And this strategy must be founded on quantitative studies based on the collection and analysis of publicly-available data – i.e. it should not be driven by hypotheses uncorroborated by the facts, or by intuitive guesswork, and in no way should it be driven by the ups and downs of the political agenda.

Which brings me to the short term, and what I call the technical vision of the smart city. Within a timeframe of a few years, a city can become smart if it gets organised to collect data. Practically speaking this means two things:  equipping cities with new technologies and opening up the data to developers in a transparent manner. Of course this raises huge questions regarding data security and confidentiality.

I would also add that, in more general terms, a smart city needs to be flexible. Let’s take an example close to home: rush-hour traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. In the morning there are six lanes out of the nine open in the direction of San Francisco. In the evening it’s the other way around. The objective, of course, is to get traffic flowing smoothly during peak times. The city must adapt to its urban flows during the day. So, in other words, a smart city is a flexible and dynamic city that adapts to demand.

Do all cities set out from the same point to get ‘smart’? What are the best examples of smart cities?

No, they don’t, and there we should add another distinction – between new cities and existing cities. A new city can set itself an ambitious, even daring strategic vision from the very outset. In a way, this is what Singapore did from the start. The city’s pulse beats to the tune of a network of camera sensors and even GPS technology installed in taxis so as to measure the traffic flows in real time. Singapore was the first city in the world to introduce variable road tolls depending on traffic congestion. And this vision of a multi-ethnic Singapore in a ‘garden city’; it was Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, who drove the idea.

But cities that already exist have to work with a completely different equation. First of all they have to attain the technical level of their future ambitions. Let’s take the example of Bogota which, at the beginning of the 2000s, started the TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system. The aim was to deal with the monstrous volumes of traffic that paralysed the city every rush hour. Today TransMilenio is the largest bus network in the world, with twelve lines covering 112 kilometres and transporting 2.2 million passengers each day – and at a far lower cost than if the city had built an underground metro. Another example: Barcelona is without doubt the most advanced European city in terms of using technologies to help plan its urban policy. It has an open data policy which means that public data is available to all its citizens and also to companies, which can then use the data to create new services. The ‘App&Town’ app, which directs you from point A to point B in the city, taking into account all the different ways of getting around, is the result of this type of policy.

Cities must also learn from each other. ‘Citymart’, for example, is a powerful tool that’s available to them. It’s a collaborative platform for sharing best practice. Today over 50 cities are using Citymart, including London, Paris, Barcelona and San Francisco.

What exactly is ‘smart transportation’?

One of the basic ideas behind this concept is to give people alternatives. A single bus on its own, a bike- or car-sharing system – these are not smart initiatives. However, a combination of all these solutions can create a smart transportation system. That’s why it’s difficult to persuade people to give up their cars. The car is there, outside their house, ready to go. If we’re going to succeed, we have to offer credible transport alternatives and ‘smart’ journeys calling on a range of different means of transport.

For example, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong gives you access to a whole range of transportation options. As a general rule, citizens don’t want to have to carry a pile of cards to get around; they just want one that they can use for all transportation services. German startup moovel helps optimise your transport options to get from A to B but first and foremost it allows you to book your pass directly for the whole journey, with everything on the same app. Having access to transportation in this way is the future of smart transportation, as far as I’m concerned.

So what’s the future of ‘smart transportation’?

Lots of companies are thinking nowadays about how to optimise existing models in the light of the smart city.  This is good because one of the most sustainable things a city can do is to transform certain aspects of its infrastructure. In fact, if the city wants to offer its citizens a really pleasant transportation experience, they shouldn’t feel that they’re travelling at all. So why not organise things so that citizens need to commute less? We should rethink traditional city infrastructure so as to reduce the number of journeys people need to make.

I believe that the two changes that could have a real impact for smart cities are first, ease of access to, and booking of transport; and second, the electric car – although, having said that, I don’t think we should focus all our efforts on the electric car because it won’t solve much on its own: being stuck in a traffic jam comes down to the same thing whether you’re in a traditional vehicle or an electric car. It’s the same for the Ubers and Lyfts of this world, which are in fact not used for the regular commute, except by some professional people. And even though these services are very efficient, they’re still rather expensive and a poor alternative if we’re trying to get rid of traffic jams. These services are only a small part of smart transportation systems.

The obvious solution is to work on the logistical aspects: the ‘static’ situations, where vehicles are parked or stationary in the same place at any one time; and the ‘dynamic’ situation, i.e. optimising traffic flows.

And where do self-driving cars come in? Are they synonymous with real disruption?

Self-driving cars will be totally disruptive, whether for transporting people or goods. As yet there is very little legislation on these cars, and it’s going to take quite a while yet before their use becomes widespread. Some companies have perhaps gone too fast in relation to market realities. The auto-makers have all managed to show that they’re able to make reliable self-driving cars.  Uber is also planning to produce its own autonomous car. Yes, driverless cars will definitely be the disruptive innovation of the next thirty years.

By Pierre Pariente and Arthur de Villemandy