In corporate culture there’s an enjoyable and simple way of killing time in tedious meetings. It’s called Buzzword Bingo and this is how it works.
Instead of the numbers that appear on traditional bingo cards, you substitute the jargon that inevitably peppers conversations in large organisations. If you’re unlucky enough to attend a meeting where someone talks about “unlocking synergies that result from a proactive customer centric strategy”, you’re likely to get to bingo in record time.
Similarly if you’re at a conference focused on the future of the urban environment, you could easily win a game of Buzzword Bingo simply by filling your card with the phrase “smart city.”
These two words are used liberally to describe something that actually doesn’t exist at the moment. This was highlighted in a report published recently that noted “…there are no examples to date of cities launching fully-integrated, strategically-designed, smart city development programmes.” 
What does exist is a lot of marketing hype about the potential for cities to embrace technology driven visions. This hype is also a source of contention among informed commentators who take issue with the phrase “smart city.”
For a city to be smart implies that there is some central control that is analogous to the human brain. However cities are massively complex systems and the ability to control such systems is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.
Perhaps a better analogy is to think of the city as an ecosystem where intertwining relationships exist between the flows of resources, information and people. With this in mind it’s helpful to reframe the role of technology in cities as part of the ecosystem, providing information that assists and informs these flows.
There’s no doubt that cities have a lot to gain from understanding these flows and running more efficiently. If you simply look at the buildings in a city, there’s an enormous opportunity to save resources. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, buildings account for about 40 percent of total global energy consumption , and making a dent in this has been the focus of some fascinating projects.
For example, Microsoft recently conducted analysis of energy consumption across 13 buildings at its main campus. This estate has a combined floor space roughly the same as that of the Empire State Building. The company found that by deploying analytics software to monitor its buildings, it could save considerable money by detecting issues that would previously not be addressed. In one specific area of building management the savings were four-fold, resulting in savings in excess of US$1.25 million a year. This was achieved with an initial investment of less than 10 percent of it’s annual energy bill. The company estimates that the entire system could save enough energy to payback that investment within two years, shaving 6-10% of the total energy bill for the campus .
Amplifying these sorts of savings across entire urban environments is one of the key messages that is promoted by technology vendors in their efforts to sell their systems to cities. It’s a message that’s hard for cities to ignore – there are few cities in the world that aren’t seeking to save money wherever possible. In addition the deployment of technology to aid efficiencies in the city environment has massive benefits when it comes to managing unexpected events such as floods and earthquakes.
However in pursing this approach, cities risk being seduced by a technology vision that imposes a top-down control schema. To really unleash the potential of technology in the city environment you need to make the technology overlay accessible to citizens to empower people to understand how to get the best from their environment, and influence how this happens.
There are parallels here with the development of new products and services in the commercial world. Companies that release products without understanding consumer needs face the very real risk that the product will fail. On the other hand, companies that really understand users tend to develop products that become runaway hits. For example, compare the fates of the mobile phone offerings from Nokia and Apple.
In the city environment it’s just as difficult for local government officials to try and predict what their citizens are most passionate about. This is why any initiative that relies on data to run cities more efficiently must also find ways to enable and empower citizens to use that same data to effect change that is most important to them.
To illustrate, city officials tend to look at pollution levels across an entire urban environment simply because there’s no granularity in the data to do it in any other way. But what if sensors were able to provide real time information that allowed citizens to understand traffic pollution levels on the road outside their child’s school, and correlate this to health issues in the area?
Obtaining this level of granularity is key for both the efficient running of a city, and to empowering citizens to take action about the issues that impact them.
The Sensing City project in Christchurch, New Zealand, is aiming to bring this vision to reality. The city suffered a series of major earthquakes in 2010/2011 that destroyed the entire central business district. Over 1800 commercial buildings were either destroyed or have been demolished. Two years after the first earthquake the city is only now starting to rebuild.
The project will incorporate a carpet of sensors in the rebuilt infrastructure to monitor everything from noise levels to water use in real time at a granular level. It will also add data from existing databases (such as traffic flow) as well as information from the systems that control building management systems (such as those deployed by Microsoft in the example above).
The aggregated data will be available in an open datastore where it can be analysed by city officials and citizens alike. The open nature of the data is critical. In the pollution scenario outlined above, sensors are of no use to concerned citizens if the data generated is inaccessible.
For example one of the first projects under development will examine the correlation between air quality, air temperature and the incidences of respiratory illness. Sensors on inhalers will monitor when people require relief from exacerbations of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These sensors will relay real time data about the quantity of medication dispensed, the air temperature at the mouth and the location. Coupled with this will be real time data from across the city at a granular level that captures the level of particulates in the air. This project has a number of measurable benefits to the city, the health system and also the patient.
The Sensing City initiative paves the way for Christchurch to become a laboratory to better understand how technology can create more sustainable urban environments. In doing so the city is expected to become a melting pot of emerging technology such as big data, the internet of everything, cheap sensors and pervasive connectivity.
The ability for technology to understand in real time how cities work has the potential to significantly change the way we manage the places where we live. This is not just an issue for megacities where most of the media attention is usually focused - it’s actually medium sized cities like Christchurch that will have the biggest impact on global growth in the coming decade .
The emergence of top-down and bottom-up city technology ecosystems also means that in the not too-distant future, Buzzword Bingo cards at urban planning conferences might have to include the phrases smart citizen, empowered people, transparent decision-making and open cities.
1 Information Marketplaces Report. 2011. Published by Arup, Accenture, The Climate Group and Horizon. Downloadable from: http://www.arup.com/Publications/Information_Marketplaces_the_new_economics_of_cities.aspx
2 Energy-Smart Buildings, Accenture, Oct 2011. Downloadable from: http://www.accenture.com/us-en/Pages/insight-energy-smart-buildings-it-cut-energy-use-cost.aspx
4 The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that 577 middleweights—cities with populations of between 150,000 and 10 million, are seen contributing more than half of global growth to 2025 http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/urbanization/urban_world