From Smart to Savvy: The Transition to Cognitive Cities (Part 1 of 3)

January 2, 2018

Technology alone doesn’t make a city safe or smart
Safety is a basic human requirement. This is why most cities have at very least a plan – and in most cases an existing program – to make themselves safe cities, and meeting that fundamental need often requires the use of technology. Now, many cities are undergoing a transition to become smart cities: urban areas where security solutions work in unison with other systems, extending the benefits of technology beyond security and into other city operations. Even though this transformation from safe to smart has yet to become a widespread reality, the next crucial transition – from smart city to cognitive city – is already appearing on the horizon. In the first of three posts about this 3-level transition, we’ll focus on “smart” and explain why “smart” means much more than technology.
The world is becoming increasingly urban. Three years ago in its World Urbanization Prospects report, the United Nations reported that 54% of the world’s population lived in cities. That same report projected that by 2050, that number will hit 66%. From New York City to New Delhi, density follows development. There are many reasons for this: cities tend to provide more opportunities for jobs and education, as well as greater access to amenities like public transportation, sports, and cultural events.
These advantages result in growth, and with growth comes strain on existing public services, infrastructure, and resources. Not to mention keeping the city’s residents safe by preventing crime from growing with – or even outpacing – the population.
Increasingly urban
Increasingly urban
This basic need for urban public safety is one of the biggest forces driving the adoption of “smart city” solutions: approaches which seek to solve urban challenges through technological means. The thinking behind these initiatives is that with enough Internet connectivity and real-time data, surely environmental, social, economic, and public health issues should become more manageable. If technology can transform entire industries, why can’t it also make our power grids more resilient, transportation systems efficient and municipal water supplies more sustainable? Surely, more data can only lead to better outcomes… right?

Tech for tech’s sake

To quote a sharp American journalist and satirist – H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. In this context, you’d think the answer would be: “just add more technology”, right? Although tech is necessary for an urban area to transition to being a safe and smart city, tech alone isn’t sufficient. Truly smart cities are savvy cities, and that includes how they employ software, sensing, communications and other technologies to meet their needs.
There are types of problems which connected sensors, data, and software can provide straightforward and effective solutions. One example of these includes network-connected traffic cameras which can relay real-time traffic conditions to both city managers and the public at large, data which morning commuters can then access from a mobile app and adjust their route accordingly.
Smart electricity meters are another example. By monitoring and reporting energy usage in real time, residents can get instant feedback on how their lifestyle choices impact their energy consumption and their monthly bill. Utilities can also benefit from this data, as it could highlight both specific times and areas of high demand, as well as identify sections of the distribution network that are under heavy strain.
Both of these examples highlight the obvious need to collect the relevant data first, and thus explain why smart city initiatives have focused on the widespread collection of data (especially video) through the deployment of large numbers of monitoring and recording devices, like CCTV cameras and license plate readers. Some of those initiatives, however, like red light cameras or computerized flight passenger screening systems, have amounted to little more than “security theater”, which might waste limited resources and further delay the smart city transition due to over-hyped solutions and unrealistic projected ROI.
In other words, technology doesn’t necessarily result in more safety.

Safety and privacy

This new era of surveillance technologies can also assist law enforcement in maintaining public order and safety. The thought is the more areas we observe, the longer we observe them, and the more surveillance data we store and index, the more likely we are to be in possession of the information we need. But does this mean we are also more likely to quickly find what we need? Cities need solutions that help find what you need (e.g. a missing child or a suspect) and convert the “too much information” into “actionable intelligence”.

Crowd monitoring
Crowd monitoring
There is one major caveat to smart city solutions: the data tends to flow in one direction from what are ultimately surveillance devices to government officials (as we pointed out above), leading to tensions between personal privacy and government goals of safety and higher efficiency. Without a clear understanding and buy-in from all stakeholders (especially the citizens, law enforcement, and city management), those tensions will only escalate as wireless broadband connectivity becomes cheaper and faster, sensor and processing technologies get even more miniaturized and affordable, and big data tools like cloud resources and storage technology grow even more robust as they catalog more and more digital breadcrumbs of our physical lives.

Here’s the takeaway: even in smart cities, dialogue, public input, careful analysis, and consensus are still more critical than any technology. This is because city residents are not only consumers of public services and amenities, but also citizens with legal rights. In our next post, How a smart city can benefit both consumers and citizens, we’ll see how smart cities can benefit both.