Why smart cities are the secret ingredient to socio-economic success: Part one

From Lahore, Shanghai and New York City, to Barcelona, Manchester and Milton Keynes, we’re seeing an exponential rise in the number of smart cities being ‘created’ globally, with the intention of making citizens’ lives more convenient, secure and sustainable.

Only last month, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs announced a 1,500-page master plan to redevelop two Toronto neighbourhoods into a ‘hyper-connected, digitally-assisted utopia’. These new neighbourhoods will also be installed with connected streetlights and embedded with sensors to provide a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output, says Mikael Sandberg, chairman of VXFIBER.

There is no doubt that the latest technologies central to the creation of smart cities – such as AI, robotics and machine learning – can offer huge improvements in the way that cities are run. But on the flip side, it would also seem that technology that is being designed to enhance lives is being continually criticised and demonised.

Smart cities are being heralded as helping to create a world akin to the omnipresent government surveillance in George Orwell’s 1984. Rather than citizens knowingly sharing their data with local authorities and city councils to create a seamless living experience, they are in fact experiencing a world where lamp posts are always watching them, smartphones can predict their every move, and knowledge on them is instantly accessible from the simple click of a button.

What’s more, there’s also a – perhaps exaggerated – misconception that some smart cities are simply ‘gilt-edged tax-exempt gated communities conceived by private multinational corporations’ where the elite can live in a new ‘Black Mirror-esque’ world. Popping up across the globe, from ‘Kenya to Kazakhstan’, they are faceless, “city in a box” luxury developments – with Songdo in South Korea being heralded the poster child offering little or no benefits to its inhabitants.

All those involved in the deployment of smart cities – from governments, local authorities and city councils, to technology vendors, telecoms operators and connected device manufacturers, and more – are determined to quell these conspiracy theories. Part of this is helping citizens to understand the positive impact efforts to build a ‘smart’ city will have on their local area and see smart cities for what they really are – helping to bring about key socio-economic, as well as economic, change.

Mikael Sandberg

A starting point is ensuring that the technology that is being deployed to create a smart city is viewed as an enabler, one that is crucial to the regeneration of both the urban and rural areas surrounding the city. Indeed, fully aware that OFCOM’s Spring 2019 statement stating a mere 7% of UK homes and businesses are connected to full-fibre is far from ideal, the UK government has pledged to achieve 100% connectivity by 2033, if not earlier.

Not only is having the right infrastructure in place central to reducing the digital divide by connecting the unconnected, it is also vital to helping businesses adapt to, and grow and prosper from, the onset of the digital or Industrial 4.0 revolution. Full-fibre networks offer a realistic and achievable vision for faster internet access due to their extraordinary bandwidth capacity that will support new technological innovations. For example, the one-two punch of sensors and real-time data brought on by 5G and IoT, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities for smart cities.

Improvements to education services is one key benefit that the digital developments in building smart cities can bring. With better connectivity, it will be possible to facilitate remote learning, making education services a lot more accessible for those where it wasn’t previously an option. Resources and teaching support will be made available for those who are unable to travel every day to the classroom and can unlock the door to education for those who are keen to study whilst working full-time.

Healthcare services also have the potential to be transformed in the smart cities of our future. The digitisation of healthcare support, hospitals and clinics will create new methods of patient monitoring and diagnosis. Indeed, this is something that now sits on our horizon, as in the UK the NHS’ recent launch of its AI lab in the aim to improve healthcare will surely revolutionise medicine as we have known it.

It’s important that businesses and tech companies help citizens understand the positive impact efforts to build a smart city will have on their local area. We should view smart cities as a way to solve ongoing issues in society – such as providing more jobs, tackling pollution and offering affordable housing – and see it as an opportunity to take real action.

Therefore, as smart cities start to climb the global political and news agenda, we should look to see how we can make them the most effective that they can be. Not only through the implementation of the right infrastructure – but also with a mindset that is open to solving socio-economic issues that we’ve been battling for years. Now, through the redevelopment of our digital futures can this be truly achievable.

The author is Mikael Sandberg, chairman of VXFIBER

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