The pandemic has crystallised thinking around the value and purpose of smart cities, writes Colin Mann, Digital Project Advisor in our Asia Pacific practice.

What’s a smart city? A ‘science fiction fantasy’ and ‘the code to urbanism’ are a few of the answers (and there have been many) provided over the past decade.

The Smart Cities Council, a network of companies, universities and standards bodies which champion the concept, defines a smart city as one which ‘uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its liveability, workability and sustainability.

Urbanisation, growing pains and limits on infrastructure are key drivers for these forward-thinking cities, it says. The benefits might span reduced environmental footprint, efficient utilities and improved transport.

This seems clear enough; however, as individuals, we remain limited by our own imagination.

While for many, the concept of gathering, sharing and crunching data – the crux of any smart city  – will be intuitively beneficial, it can be difficult to understand how, in practical terms, a Smart City construct will actually create positive impact. What are we trying to analyse?  What are we trying to change?

For all of its devastating and far-reaching impacts on health and the economy, COVID-19 is also forcing us to question many aspects of our lives and our ways of living. And amongst these debates and searches for answers, the pandemic is enabling us to crystallise thinking around the value and purpose of a smart city: what they are/what they could be; and how they will improve our way of life.

This is because the pandemic is demanding answers to very complex questions about cities, places and society.  To answer them, we are being forced to transcend traditional information silos, requiring a new level of ‘connected’ thinking.

The comparison with digital engineering

This ‘connected thinking’ is also at the heart of the digital engineering world – we identify the questions we need to answer, however challenging, and find the data and process to answer them.

As for urban decision makers and smart city leaders, for the owners and operators of large estates, digital engineering is the opportunity to demand answers and unlock greater insights from their asset data.  But it can be hard to know where to start and easy to get lost amongst acronyms, process maps and technology demonstrations.

Identifying these ‘plain language questions’ is the first critical step. And we need to be challenging and ambitious; find the hard questions we really want to answer, not the ones we know can be answered within a single, existing information silo.  There are plenty of examples to choose from:

  • How does my real-time energy consumption compare to the design specification for each of my built assets, broken down by individual facility and system?
  • Which refurbishment activity will provide the best return on investment, considering expected use, current maintenance costs, operational risks and the downtime for works?

If we get these questions right, then we’re set up for success and guided by business value.

I’m fortunate to be working with an asset owner to define this now, and it led me to reflect on the need for the plain language questions at the scaled-up level of our Smart City. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the city authority: what are the challenging questions we would want to answer?

The questions to test a smart city

If we try to write these questions down in a period of normality, we would again be limited by our imagination and sense of practicality. At this moment however, the tough questions are being written for us. Just a few examples:

  • If we reduce or restrict public transport, how will this specifically effect the ability of healthcare workers to access medical facilities?
  • Which locations will present the greatest social distancing challenges, given the environment, demographic, proximity to infrastructure and the operation of local businesses?
  • What is the most effective way to prioritise grocery provision to elderly or vulnerable members of the community, over non-essential logistics?
  • Which workers, and for which businesses and functions, must be able to get to work to avoid a detrimental impact on healthcare provision?

There are countless other examples.

But whether city or estate, policymaker or asset owner, the solution is the same: What they have in common is a need to be able to gather, share and analyse data from multiple sources in a meaningful way.  Once answered initially, they would all benefit from results-testing and iteration; using real-time data to measure the impact of decisions taken.

Smart cities beyond Covid19

Smart city-type responses to the pandemic were quick to emerge. They include proximity tracking technology and the connection of health status with access to public transport.

But when, eventually, we emerge from the crisis, we should take time to be inspired by these pandemic questions and push ourselves to define the challenging, multi-modal questions which will have most beneficial impact on our ‘normal’ lives.

Put another way, if a mature Smart City could quickly answer some of the above questions to control a pandemic, what other questions could it help answer to improve liveability, workability and way of normal life?

Here’s a couple to get started:

  • What is the best combination of initiatives to most effectively reduce congestion and transport emissions? (road tolls, public transport improvements, bike lanes, 5G, business/government relocation, etc…)
  • What is the optimum means of smart grid control, communication and incentives to help smooth the peaks of energy consumption and ensure power continuity for vulnerable society?

These questions may seem too complex to answer – but they are what we need to guide and test the architects of the smart city.