How to build a smart city

Posted 25/11/2015 by E.ON

Let’s start with a stat. At the moment, just over half of the world’s population live in cities. By 2050, that figure is expected to rise to 70%.

To keep up with the growth, it’s important that there’s a focus on improving urban living. Cities all around the world need to become progressive, more sustainable, and quite a lot smarter. 

You might have already, in fact, heard of the term ‘smart city’. This refers to how technology is used to provide a city with better infrastructure, a cleaner environment and a better all-round quality of life.

Indeed we’ve already taken a look at some of the biggest and brightest smart cities in our recent smart city guide, covering everything from floating villages in Amsterdam to transport systems in Santiago.

Chances are, there are plans afoot in your nearest city to help it get smarter as the passion and need for technology grows.

Becoming a ‘smart city’ requires a lot of work and a lot of cooperation. So we spoke to Dr Ritsuko Ozaki, Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College London and an expert on innovation in the urban environment, to see what it takes to make a city ‘smart’.

1. Find a problem to solve

This can be anything from vast, city-wide initiatives to small, localised problems. Whatever it is, start with an issue that’s genuinely affecting the way people are living their lives. “You need to think, what will this innovation do for people?” Ritsuko says. “A smart city is meant to improve society – not use technology for the sake of it.” You could be tackling an environmental issue, like San Diego is doing with its luxury eco apartments. Or you could be trying to improve your transport links, like the cities using the new BRT network. Or it could even be an issue around food, in the way Chicago is using LED-enabled indoor vertical farming to help farmers harvest 25 growing cycles per year. 

2. Call in the techies

Once you know the problem you want to solve – and get the backing for it (this is still the biggest issue in getting smart city projects off the ground) – it’s time to engage the tech gurus. Many solutions will come from small tech start-ups and entrepreneurs, but there are lots of larger corporations, as well as universities and research centres, putting resource into this area too. “Collaboration is key,” Ritsuko points out. “You have to all pull together to help such big projects succeed.” Ensure everyone is involved from an early stage – smart city projects touch a lot of people – and learn from the best.  A lot of resource and knowledge has already gone in to developing smart cities like Eindhoven, Milton Keynes, Barcelona. Check them out and be inspired and educated by their progress. Don’t try and do it all yourself.

men talking looking at a tablet - E.ON

3. Invest in open data

Getting the right tech set up is only half the battle. For people to truly be able to understand, use and interact with smart cities, we need open data. Open data is data that anyone can use, access and share at any time. It might mean monitoring energy supplies, checking the times for the trains in real time or wanting to know where’s best to park during a busy period – all are smart city solutions and all require open data sources. It brings a new element of empowerment to the public. “You have to think how people live their everyday life,” Ritsuko states. “Control is a big issue – people want to control what’s going on.” These initiatives help do that. In Songdo, South Korea, even the rubbish is providing data!

4. Keep it simple

The beauty of smart cities is that they’re accessible and beneficial to everyone. So they need to be able to be used by anyone. We’ve all had moments where we’ve struggled to get to grips with a piece of technology – whether we consider ourselves tech-savvy or not. So whilst some smart city ideas may be clever and advanced, they can’t be too clever for their own good. “No matter how great your tech is, if people can’t use it, then what’s the point?” Ritsuko asks. “You can’t make people’s lives more complicated – they’re already complicated enough!” Make smart cities easy to access and easy to share. You don’t want a smart city full of residents suffering tech fatigue. And you don’t want a system that’s clever but prone to breakages, too difficult to fix or too technical to be able to work without the input of someone with an IQ that rivals Stephen Hawking.

5. Education, education, education…

So you’re solving a genuine problem, have the tech nailed and made it simple to use. You’re all ready to go, right? Almost. You still need to tell people about it. Education is still much of the smart city battle. In fact, in a recent US poll, less than half the people surveyed could actually describe what made a smart city, and even less knew of the many apps and features available right on their doorstep. “People talk about smart cities all the time but everyone has different definitions for them,” Ritsuko says. “Your idea has to be accepted and understood by users.” This is particularly key when we return to that issue of big data. Utter the ‘d’ word and people get scared and clam up. There needs to be an element of trust built up – for people to know that your project is safe, secure and beneficial to them….

The Bottom Line

The benefits of smart cities are great, technology is shaping the future. Not just in how we communicate or fill our spare time, but in how we live our lives. Whether that’s through the transport you take, food you eat or energy you use, smart cities are putting the power in your hands.

Find out how we’re using technology to make controlling your energy use easier with smart meters and E.ON Touch.

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