The successes achieved by Singapore and some rust-belt cities in the United States prove that when it comes to the Smart City, collaboration is key.
Last April, Daniel Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary that helps local authorities make the shift towards the Smart City era, inaugurated the company blog Sidewalk Talk with an article entitled “It’s time for urbanists and technologists to start talking”. He argues that “one of the barriers to faster and wider change is a lack of dialogue between the people who live in today’s cities and the folks who build tomorrow’s technologies.” If you want to develop technologies to improve people’s daily lives and come up with effective solutions, you have to know their needs and expectations, the difficulties they experience on a daily basis, and match these up with the resources and requirements of local authorities. In other words, the Smart City must focus on human beings, and in order to understand them you need dialogue and collaboration.
Absence of dialogue leads to failure
Technology-based approaches drawn up in a bubble or delivered from the top of an ivory tower are rarely successful, whether we are thinking about the futurist projects of the Soviets or the dystopic societies depicted in science fiction, from 1984 to Brazil. What they all have in common is that they tend to leave human beings on the sidelines, which leads to out-of-sync, inefficient and impersonal results. Closer to home, lots of projects never reach their full potential due to a lack of real understanding between the startups doing the work and the local authorities who commission it. In 2011, IBM teamed up with the US city of Portland, Oregon to draw up a predictive model for urban planning. The idea was to come up with algorithms capable of processing large quantities of data to help decide on public policy going forward.
Collaboration between IBM and the City of Portland has never reached its full potential
In the end however it all seemed to be much ado about nothing: the recommendations they came up with were limited to fairly obvious commonplaces such as “Promote bicycle transport in order to reduce obesity”. This particular recommendation comes across as especially worthless given that Portland already has the highest bike-to-work rate among major US cities! The new technology giants have also been getting into trouble with the local authorities in a number of cities in the United States. For instance, New York is about to pass a bill to ban short-term apartment listings on Airbnb, which narrowly escaped the same treatment in San Francisco last autumn. Lyft and Uber recently left Austin, Texas, after the city voted in favour of legislation requiring background checks on drivers using fingerprint technology. Meanwhile a number of mayors from around the world got together recently to draw up rules pertaining to the on-demand economy.
Two different but complementary worlds
So how does such friction come about? Daniel Doctoroff points out that “there are all sorts of institutional barriers on both sides. On the city end, those include vested interests, risk-averse bureaucracy, private-sector suspicion, and legitimate public safety concerns. On the tech end are political insensitivities, a reflexive dismissal of existing regulations, and a reluctance to balance profit motives with civic benefits and systems.”
However, City Hall and tech startups have everything to gain from collaborating so as to overcome any obstacles. The new information and communication technologies have much to offer the municipal authorities: Big Data enables them to get a better handle on their environment and offer more efficient services; 3D printing offers amazing opportunities in the field of construction; autonomous systems and geolocation promise to revolutionise mobility; artificial intelligence can help to boost citizen engagement in community life; the on-demand economy can compensate for a shortfall in certain public services, and so on.
Meanwhile the companies working in these fields can benefit from state aid or springboard projects such as the recently-completed Smart City Challenge, which is a good example of what can be achieved. Moreover, an increasing number of local authorities are now recruiting ICT specialists so as to integrate the new technologies into their development plans and get the best out of startup expertise by creating a vibrant market for tech startups.
Singapore, a beacon of successful collaboration
The city-state of Singapore is an example of successful collaboration between the authorities and local companies, based on a people-centric approach. Singapore runs a state programme called Smart Nation, which aims to use digital technology to help tackle urban issues. The city-state is also creating a new Government Technology Agency focusing entirely on the new technologies. Quizzed about the initiative’s success on Sidewalk Talk, Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director of the Infocomm Development Authority, which spearheads the Smart Nation initiative, explained: “For Singapore, the essence of our Smart Nation vision was always that it was focused on the people [...] So the idea was to bring together different agencies to see: If we wanted to be a citizen-centric, business-centric, smart city, what really are the applications that would make sense? That would best define and improve the lives of our citizens and businesses? And then, working backwards, what are the kinds of technologies, what are the kinds of data that need to be collected and shared, and then made into tools to be able to enable that experience?”
Jacqueline Poh believes that this people-centred approach should be taken willingly by public authorities, in close collaboration with companies, in order to fast-test ideas against reality and find the best way to implement them.
Think ‘user experience’
Poh underlines that such collaboration between city authorities and private providers should always keep the end-user firmly in mind, revealing: “Very often I find that tech companies don’t talk enough to the beneficiaries of the technology in order to really understand what their pain points are and to validate whether what they think is the solution makes any difference to the user at all.” Singapore conducted a survey into consumers’ expectations as regards the ‘connected home’. The results showed that on the whole people were not prepared to pay for services designed to manage their energy consumption but would be very interested in, for example, having their homes adapted to meet the needs of elderly people in the family. This kind of information should enable companies to bundle their services more appropriately.
Among the successful ventures in Singapore is the MyResponder app, which enables anyone who has a heart attack or falls suddenly ill to send out an alert to people nearby who are trained in CPR and the operation of an automated external defibrillator (AED) and get immediate help. This is likely to be a very useful app in a place like Singapore, where the population is ageing fast. There is also Beeline, an app that enables residents to make use of a demand-driven, shared transit shuttle bus.
The renaissance of some cities in the Rust Belt (photo: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) owes much to successful collaboration between state authorities and private sector businesses.
Rust Belt renaissance
The US Rust Belt offers another example of successful synergy between municipal authorities and private sector companies. In their book entitled ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, Antoine von Agtmael and Fred Bakker pinpoint the US’s old industrial cities – including Detroit, Pittsburgh, Akron – as new centres of innovation, that are now attracting young talented people and witnessing the creation of a large number of startups. Among the keys to success of these newly resuscitated cities, the authors emphasise the importance of collaboration between startups, major corporations, universities and the local authorities. These collaborative efforts have for example enabled the emergence of smart factories, traditional industrial buildings that have been decommissioned and newly converted into factories of the future, working in robotics or 3D printing. The authorities have also worked with private companies to make the urban landscape more attractive, by optimising the transport system and developing complementary solutions for getting around the city, building affordable housing and creating collaborative workspaces suitable for interaction and creativity. The Rust Belt’s drive to rise from the ashes is due in large part to this close collaboration between local authorities and the private sector.