The UK’s Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) produces well-researched and well-written reports on a good range of subjects. In September (No 656) it produced one focused on Smart Cities, a much-hyped phenomenon. Many reports on Smart Cities adopt an air of technological determinism, ignoring the economic and social issues inherent in any widespread change, but the POST Note does consider barriers to adoption, possible inequality and citizens’ real needs. Indeed, they note the use of alternative labels such as ‘connected places’ and ‘future cities’ to reflect the use of technologies beyond urban settings and to focus on the needs of citizens rather than the technology itself.
They first do a quick run through the key technologies and some applications:
- Sensors and actuators: for traffic management, smart streetlights, travel apps
- Communications: 5G, Low-power WAN (for use within buildings)
- Data analysis: “digital twins” to model impacts of change.
Other studies on Smart Cities identify more opportunities.
Benefits are taken to be economic (improved job creation, efficiency and productivity savings), environmental (lower emissions, pollution management) and social (safety, engagement). Some evidence for this is referred to, but personally I am sceptical of some of the claims.
The Note then discusses some of the barriers to implementation:
- Procurement: Local Authorities may lack the technical skills; funding (especially at scale); supplier lock-in.
- Lack of coherent public policy: no central government thrust; mixed interest locally
- Unclear regulatory issues and lack of standards
- Ownership of assets: negotiations with utilities etc
- Data sharing across private/public owners
- Lack of public engagement, prioritising the implementation of novel technologies over the needs of citizens.
Some of these barriers are being addressed, but there are some very tricky political/power issues in there that should make us wary of projecting rapid developments. When many of the benefits seem small or fragmented the drive to enable change is restricted.
Finally, they look at some risks. Although there are some rural applications, most developments are urban (unsurprisingly – the clue is in the name), so inequality may be increased. Inequality is also increased through digital exclusion, if there is a presumption of smartphone use. For example, Fix My Street, an app for reporting maintenance issues, may disproportionately focus on the needs of younger and wealthier citizens.
Security is clearly a major risk. Disrupting traffic management systems is a threat as old as The Italian Job. Smart Cities are likely characterised by multiple inter-connected systems, making enforcing security critical – and difficult. The risk of data being hacked is high, despite efforts from the National Cyber Security Centre to issue guidance. Amnesty International is also concerned that power over citizens’ access to services or places could be passed to commercial interests, in much the same way as privately owned public spaces give control to unaccountable organisations.
A related risk is privacy. Although data can be anonymised, cross-links between different datasets can make re-identification more possible. The level of monitoring and prospects of links with CCTV systems raise the spectre of social control on a scale such as to threaten civil rights.
Interestingly, the Note doesn’t end with any predictions or even offer a view on whether Smart Cities are a good idea. It is clear from the analysis that there are major challenges, but identifying them at least offers the prospect of overcoming them. The POST Note is a good review of a wide range of relevant issues, not blinded by technological optimism. At just 4 pages long (plus 2 pages of extensive references) it is well worth the read as a balanced introduction to the topic.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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