L’Atelier met up with Arvind Satyam, an expert on the ‘Smart City’ and the Internet of Things. He analyses for us the major advances that are likely to bring radical change to the cities of tomorrow.

The traffic question is “a central issue for the Smart City”

Arvind Satyam is Managing Director for Global Business Development at CISCO Systems Industry Solutions Group. He manages the global business development team for Cisco’s ‘Internet of Everything’ initiative for Cities. He works with local authorities to help them adopt Internet of Things technology for all their activities.

L’Atelier: What’s the main driver in your job as business developer for Smart City projects?

Arvind Satyam: On the one hand, we’re trying to figure out how, by connecting a range of technologies on to a network, a common platform, we can change the way a city is managed and transform the daily lives of its residents. When you walk through Paris sometime in the future, what will have changed? And then we’re trying to understand how we can get these technologies adopted on a large scale today.

What’s hindering adoption, then?

One of the main obstacles we see is that despite their desire to make the world a more connected place, cities still lack the means to do so. So we’re trying to get other parties around the table, private investors who can contribute much-needed funding.

Are these investments likely to prove profitable?

There’s an analogy I like to use. In the past there was a lot of infrastructure that needed building: bridges, roads, housing, and so on – all of these investments were expensive at the time but profitable in the long run. Most of this infrastructure has now been built, and we think that the next phase will involve grafting the new technologies on to the old. Take lighting, for instance. Some cities are now moving from traditional lighting to LEDs, light-emitting diodes. The drive to consume less energy is encouraging this change, but there are more pragmatic reasons: smart lighting actually costs 60% less. So an investor who chooses to finance the project knows that his/her own electricity bill is also going to be considerably less as a result. Cities no longer have to beg for financing; they can demonstrate to their stakeholders that the returns will be positive for everybody.

Apart from this particular example, what aspect of the smart city do you think will be uppermost in the near future?

Well, there’s one thing that is a problem in every city in the world: traffic. It’s a nightmare, whether you’re in Paris, Dubai, Frankfurt or San Francisco. Now, you can’t solve the problem by increasing road size or the number of roads, there isn’t the space. So how can we use technology to help traffic flow more smoothly? This question is a central issue for the ‘smart city’. In order to deal with it we need to gather and share data: to install sensors on cars, and ensure that they communicate with each other and with their environment, so that we can warn drivers about accidents up ahead, make traffic lights work in a ‘smart’ fashion, adapting to the flow of traffic, and so on. I think this is going to be a major trend. The traffic situation as we know it today will change, with very beneficial consequences. Many people spend two or three hours a day commuting to work, so just imagine the potential gains, if only in terms of GDP. A number of startups are already working on collecting data from citizens and this is an interesting development. Five years ago, if you had asked me whether citizens were happy to share their data on traffic flows, I wouldn’t have known how to answer. Today, this is actually happening, and it helps us for example to identify road accident hotspots.

There’s no denying the potential benefit, but do you think that gathering personal data could jeopardise people’s privacy?

Firstly I think that as citizens our notion of ‘privacy’ has changed: many of us put our personal data online. We’re part of this phenomenon. However, I don’t believe we’ve reached the stage where we feel OK about videos that we’re in being circulated without our consent. But the fact is, staying with the example of cameras for a moment, even though they’re all taking pictures non-stop, the images are only used when an alarm is raised. Two weeks ago I was with the man who was the Commissioner of the Boston Police Department at the time of the Boston marathon attack. The police were able to identify the suspects from photos and videos taken by private individuals and shopkeepers who all agreed to give them to the police. I think that when there’s a problem we’re all ready to share our data. The important thing is that people know when the data is being used and what for.

Aside from data-sharing, could encouraging teleworking be one solution to improve traffic flows in tomorrow’s cities?

Absolutely. We’re working a lot on that, especially in France. Do you really have to go into the centre of Paris every day to work? I don’t think so. This is why I believe that the future will also be about working in collaborative spaces, which enable people to use an office when they need one – to meet customers, for example – and to work remotely the rest of the time. Encouraging teleworking also allows innovation to take root in places other than Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux, and so on. With today’s technologies, it really doesn’t matter where you happen to be.

By Guillaume Renouard