Are Smart Cities a Smart Idea?

We generate around 7 and a half sextillion gigabytes of data worldwide every day. The amount of data we generate is growing exponentially. We know that 90% of the world’s data was created only in the last 2 years. And the Internet of Things is already a reality, and one that grows at unprecedented pace. Around 30 billion objects are expected to be connected to the IOT by 2020. Everything will be connected, from sensors in soil and oceans, to street lamps, to wearables, cars, and even dog collars. This means that the billions of sensors in devices will be generating tons of data. If this data is processed and analyzed correctly, the possibilities for finding insights are endless.

smart city and wireless communication network, abstract image visual, internet of things

What is the concept of Smart Cities?

All this data and the insights it can give, pave the way for a concept that seems like a Hollywood film: Smart Cities. It seems like the logical next step: take all these insights and use them to make our cities more efficient. These cities will be planned and built with a full integration to Smart Data. They are to become more efficient in the usage of resources, population and crowd control, congestion, energy production and consumption, etc. Multiple cities already have millions of sensors in place and will install more low cost sensors that collect data. Many cities are starting to become “smart”. Smart Data will be the backbone of smart cities. It is essential to analyze the patterns of behavior of the people and how the city works.

One of the main benefits of smart cities is ensuring services for citizens when crowds gather. In order to do that, Smart Data has to be analyzed to understand why and when crowds form. The population of cities in the world keeps growing. There are often events where huge crowds gather and the people’s needs cannot be met due to scarce resources. Using data, the city can provide the right services to its citizens and ensure their safety.

Another benefit of smart cities is solving the problem of congestion (traffic). Using Smart Data can improve the flow of transportation services and private vehicles. The best example for this initiative is an app called Flow, courtesy of Sidewalk Labs. The developers of Flow, along with many others, believe that most of the traffic in cities is caused by people driving around looking for parking spots. So they created an app that can direct drivers to the closest parking spot available. It does this by combining data from sensors in smartphones, Google Maps, Streetview, and sensors that need to be installed in parking meters.

There are other apps like Moovit, that connects to public transportation data to help users not only see bus and train schedules, but also schedule trips in the most efficient way possible. Waze directs users to alternative routes to avoid congestion, all this by using data from users’ smartphones and their locations. This is just the beginning, but the goal is to be able to make transportation more efficient.

We cannot ignore another great possible benefit: Optimization of resources and energy consumption. There is an imminent and imperative need to make resource allocation more efficient. There are limited resources and as cities continue to grow, providing for all the inhabitants becomes more and more challenging. In order to reduce energy consumption, cities are replacing streetlamps with new LEDs that are interconnected to a system. These LEDs are constantly sending information about their status. The cities can identify any malfunctioning lamp and fix it almost immediately. There are many initiatives to save energy that are worth consideration.

If cities are “smart” and everything becomes automated, what will happen to people’s jobs?

There are a lot of changes involved in the implementation of Smart Cities. One big change is the possibility to replace human activities and tasks with artificial intelligence. This is very controversial. Automation is the latest trend. There are projects for driverless buses and trains. What would happen to bus drivers? There are smart garbage bins that can notify the city collection services when they are full; this way the garbage trucks don’t need to have set routes, instead, they go out only when needed. This saves time and fuel consumption. But it also reduces the collectors’ work hours.

There is another project lead by Leeds University, to create robot workers that can identify and fix infrastructure problems. Some will be able to fix potholes quickly and mess-free. Some will be in the sewage system, ready to fix any problem that arises, immediately.
But again, what about the city employees that do these jobs? Forrester suggests that 9.1 million US jobs will be automated by 2025. This is one of the most optimistic scenarios. It is based on the fact that tasks are not the same as jobs, and machines are meant to do dull tasks, but not take over the entire job.

More optimistic opinions say that machines and AI should be used to automate dull tasks, in order for humans to concentrate on more important matters. The strongest bet seems to be a combination: human skills and thought, combined with automated systems.

We are not taking any particular stand here. We love the fact that we can take data and use its potential to make our lives easier and our cities smarter. But when it comes to full automation, especially of human tasks… it’s still too early to know how much they can really automate. A person has life experience, something a machine does not. So we leave this open for discussion and would love to hear your opinions.

Are we saying goodbye to our privacy completely? How can we maintain data security?

Smart Cities sound wonderful. But they also sound risky in terms of data privacy. The fundamental question here is: who controls the data and will they really use it for the intended purposes?

Can governments trust the private sector to do their part for the good of the people and the improvement of the city? And not just to build revenue? There’s nothing wrong with private companies taking advantage of the huge opportunities that will appear with smart cities, but the ultimate goal needs to be to help the people. Otherwise, the whole idea of smart cities would fail in the long term.

There is a potential danger of technology providers creating monopolies. Cities will have to be very careful when creating contracts, because technology will keep changing and the option for a more innovative provider needs to remain always open. In commercial terms, the private and public sector don’t necessarily have to share personal data from citizens. But in smart cities, data needs to be shared freely between sectors. How can we know that this data won’t be misused or sold to corporations with their own hidden agendas? To make sure things are kept in check, data needs to be open, data generated by public services needs to remain public, and there needs to be participation of the citizens. Open source data can be exploited by new startups that can create innovative solutions and provide better services to the citizens.

It is a good idea to maintain the focus on what social problems we want to solve with the use of technology and automation. Cities should definitely use Smart Data and technology, not for the sake of automation, but for the sake of solving social problems. This will ensure the correct focus of Smart Cities.

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