While coming up with solutions to some of the problems of modern life, ‘smart’ cities also create their share of new challenges.

Too much efficiency? The challenges in store for smart cities

Smart cities are able to provide plenty of potential solutions to the organisational problems encountered by local authorities at a time when most of the world’s population is becoming urbanised, but they also throw up their share of mistakes, issues and question marks. Cheow Hoe Chan, Chief Information Officer for the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, argues that the authorities in many cities are making a mistake in thinking that in order to become ‘smart’ it is enough to invest in the latest expensive infrastructure. “Many take the amount of technology infrastructure as their prime metric. This is a mistake. Just having a large number of sensors installed, for example, doesn’t make a city ’smart’. Basically it’s all about solving problems, starting with the simplest,” he told the audience at the Bridge SF event which took place in San Francisco in early September. He described how Singapore had optimised its bus routes by using data that already existed as it had been generated by passengers tapping their cards on a card reader when boarding and alighting from buses.

The city of Singapore is a pioneer in finding solutions to Smart City issues

Using data

Cheow Hoe Chan feels that it is important for local authorities to promote the use of collectable data, as this is likely to become the prime means of solving problems. But if you want citizens to agree to let their data be used to help run public services better, you need to take an educational approach, underlined Thomas Sichelkow, International Smart City Business Development Manager at Gate 21, a Danish partnership between municipalities, companies and knowledge institutions that work with the common goal of accelerating the green transition. “First of all, it’s important to explain that the data is being used only to solve a specific problem,” – i.e. that, for example, vehicle navigation data is not being used to track a person’s movements, but is collected on an anonymous basis with the aim of improving transport services, he explained, adding:“Secondly, we need to promote the projects for which the data is used and show how they’re improving life in the community.”

Denmark has also made problem-solving a priority

Single point of failure

However, data also poses a problem: that of the ‘single point of failure’ – a term used in computing to describe a link in the chain on which the rest of the system depends, so that if it fails the entire system will shut down. Mickey McManus, Chairman and Principal at US design consultancy and innovation lab Maya Design, points out that storing data in the Cloud raises precisely this kind of problem. “We only have a few different Clouds in the world, those of Apple, Salesforce, Amazon, etc. and only one copy of each, so we’re putting all our eggs in one basket,” he told the Bridge SF event audience. Mickey McManus pointed out that “if you were to kidnap the nephew of the CEO of one of these companies, you’d have more power to exert pressure than if you captured the nephew of the American President. I have nothing against the Cloud, but nature has selected the peer to peer approach. When cells replicate, they carry all their information with them. And this information is at its most useful when things go wrong. There’s no central server in nature storing all the data.” So what should be done to reduce the risks? McManus argues that we ought to follow the example of electricity generators, which are periodically shut down in order to test the efficiency of the backup in the event of a real problem. In addition, malfunction testing should be carried out to ensure that virtual copies of data are in fact reliable.

Les données de la smart city

The citizen as divine artisan?

In addition to making widespread use of data, the city of the future will be different from those in the past in the sense that citizens will have greater creative powers in their hands. With 3D printing, people will be able to make much of what they need at home. Some have already used the technology to print firearms, others to print DNA. This technology is becoming increasingly accessible. San Francisco-based startup OLO has developed a device that can turn your smartphone into a 3D printer for the modest sum of $99. At the same time the development of drones and robots promises to put in the hands of individual people an increasing amount of power – to harm, when for example drones are used for malicious purposes, or to create, like for instance  the Swiss drones that can work together to build a rope bridge. In future, Man may well become a sort of citizen divine artisan, possessed of massive creative abilities. Government authorities will need to take this into account and regulate these powers so as to channel this creative force for the common good. “Every citizen will possess greater power than any state has ever had,” predicted the Maya Design Chairman.

Becoming demi-gods?

Virtue in chaos?

Last but not least, the main danger for the Smart City could be that it will become…too efficient. This is the view expressed by Philippe Crist, Senior Economist and Administrator for the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), at Bridge SF. “We talk a lot about smart cities, cities that are more efficient, cleaner, easier, but history shows that people tend not to flock to the most efficient cities. They like chaotic places, they like confusion, because the basic purpose of a city is to enable you to meet people whom you wouldn’t otherwise have met, which implies a certain degree of disorder and uncertainty,” he argued. Crist feels that if a city is to be lively, it needs to have its share of friction and rough edges and that a totally smooth existence is neither conceivable nor desirable: “Do we for example want a transport system where people travel from A to B without meeting each other? Not everything that’s simple is necessarily good, and everything that’s good isn’t always simple. Sometimes friction is preferable to smoothness,” he suggested.

By Guillaume Renouard