Every city has its own way of becoming ‘smart’, depending on its resources, its specific cultural aspects, and the challenges it faces.

Smart City: one main concept, many practical implications

At the close of the Bridge SF event on 9 Sep – a gathering where every year experts come together to explore the ‘smart city’ concept from a wide variety of angles – there was general agreement on one basic conclusion: there is not just one way for a city to be ‘smart’, but many. Each geographical region has its own culture, its own challenges and a distinct approach to improving the way the community as a whole is organised. We bring you an overview of the ideas put forward at the event.

Targeting senior citizens

For some cities that have ageing populations, looking after senior citizens is a key priority. In Singapore, for instance, the number of people aged sixty-five and over has increased from 220,000 in 2000 to 440,000 today, out of a total population of five and a half million inhabitants. By 2030, that number is forecast to double again, reaching 900,000. This stark reality creates new challenges for public health provision – for instance the number of heart attacks is on the rise. Being able to deliver first aid in the minutes following a heart attack greatly increases the patient’s chances of survival but, unfortunately, only rarely does an ambulance get there quickly enough. So the local authorities have created an app called MyResponder. “Any citizen with first aid training can subscribe to the app,” Cheow Hoe Chan, Chief Information Officer for the City of Singapore, told the audience at the Bridge SF event, explaining: “When an older person suffers a heart attack or feels unwell, a notification is sent out from the app and all the first-aiders in the area will receive it.”

The ageing population is one of the main issues in Singapore

In Japan, a country whose population is also ageing very quickly – one person in four is aged sixty-five or over – the authorities have teamed up with IBM and Apple to supply iPads to older people. The iPads come with IBM-developed apps and analytics, to enable seniors to manage their own health and get their shopping delivered. In another partnership with IBM, in 2013 the City of Stavanger in Norway set up a programme of research and recommendations, with a view to making the city more user-friendly for senior citizens.

Aiming for happiness

One of the aims of any ‘smart’ city is to improve the well-being of its residents. Depending on where you are, however, this goal may take different forms. Dubai has opted for a highly idealistic approach. After Sheikh Mohammed bin Rachid Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Dubai, set the target of “making Dubai the happiest city in the world”, the city authorities set up a Happiness Meter to measure to what extent public services boosted the happiness of Dubai residents. To collect the data, the authorities installed devices in various public buildings and in some key venues, so as to enable citizens to mark their degree of satisfaction with a particular service provided. The authorities then drew up a happiness map showing citizen satisfaction for each area. Sheikh Mohammed has also appointed a Minister of Happiness, currently Ouhoud Al-Roumi.

Dubai has introduced a Happiness Meter

Meanwhile Singapore has opted for a more targeted and pragmatic approach, tackling one of the great evils of modern life – the need to handle administrative paperwork. “One of the most irritating things for citizens is the need to fill in forms and put together a whole pile of documents whenever they’re due for a meeting at a government office. It’s even more frustrating knowing that you’ve previously sent those same documents to another government office, but unfortunately these different agencies don’t communicate with each other,” pointed out Cheow Hoe Chan, explaining: “This is why we’ve set up the MyInfo platform, which enables every citizen to create an account, enter his/her details – address, social security  number, etc. – store their documents digitally at a central location and update their forms ahead of a meeting at a government office.”

MyInfo helping to reduce paperwork in Singapore

Mobility a priority

Issues around mobility also vary from one city to another. Singapore has a highly efficient, well-provisioned bus system, but is nevertheless having to cope with a drastic increase in population, from 1.9 to 5.5 million since 1965. As it is not feasible to go on putting more buses on the roads indefinitely, the city authorities are now drawing on Big Data to increase the efficiency of the system, by squeezing higher levels of service from the same infrastructure: “On boarding and alighting from a bus, passengers have to tap their cards on a card reader, which then generates data on the journeys our fellow citizens make every day. This has enabled us to optimise the bus routes in line with actual need,” underlined Cheow Hoe Chan. They have also set up a system of buses which serve as a halfway house between scheduled public transport and on-demand mobility services: Singaporeans can use the Beeline app to tap in their intended journey and book a seat aboard a bus which will adapt its route to the needs of its passengers.

In the San Francisco Bay area, new transportation options are being grafted on to the existing systems. Navigation apps – Google Maps, Swyft, City Mapper, and so on –  incorporate public transport and the on-demand taxi service provided by Lyft and Uber, thus offering people multi-modal journey options to get from A to B. Lots of people who live in San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley now cycle to the Caltrain (inter-city train) station and then complete their journey using Lyft or Uber after leaving the train. Alain Flausch, Secretary-General of the International Association of Public Transport, sees a bright future for this dual system. “In cities that are growing in size and complexity, you can’t offer each and every citizen a means of transport that will take him/her directly from home to the office. So you have to make sure that the connections work as well as possible. Moreover, some transport routes will never be sufficiently economically viable to justify their existence. Options such as Lyft and Uber can serve as a useful backup, providing a transport solution for people who live on the outskirts and go home at two in the morning,” he told the Bridge SF audience. In fact, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has been working with Uber to create synergies with the public transport system.

Improving mobility often means optimising the existing means of transport

Hydrocarbons and connected health

Last but not least, some major cities look to draw on the advantages of their traditional economy to finance ‘smart city’ projects. Houston, Texas, whose economy is largely built on the oil refining industry, holds an annual conference known as Pumps and Pipes, whose stated purpose is to capitalise on the wealth of this local industry to create “innovation through collaboration among Houston’s energy, medicine and aerospace industries”. Last year a European version of this event was held for the first time in the Norwegian town of Stavanger, whose prosperity is also founded on petroleum, in this case offshore oilfields, and which is now making huge investments in ‘smart city’ initiatives.

So, while we have just one expression, it is clearly being used to describe a vast number of different realities on the ground. Every town has the opportunity to draw inspiration from other urban centres but will need to build on the assets and resources it possesses.

By Guillaume Renouard