The (un)habitable smart city

Enter “smart city” in Google and in 0.44 seconds, you will see no less than 1,220,000,000 results. And still counting. Fortunately, one of the top ten hits is a definition:

“A smart city is a city in which information technology and the Internet of Things are used to manage and control the city. (..) All parts of the city are connected via a network of sensors, the internet and high-tech devices with the internet of things as the motor.” (source: Wikipedia)

If you look further, you will also find the latest trends about smart cities. In addition to the cities that were already ahead, other cities are now also starting to realize that a city without smartness no longer has the right to exist. And in a much broader context, the circular economy, energy transitions, startups, government and citizens together, new economy and ownership versus use are often linked to the smart city of the future.

In this blog, we would like to mention three aspects of smart cities that stand out within our field:

  • (R)evolution
  • Paradigm shift
  • Change if you can

Evolution or Revolution?

How fast are the developments from old to smart city actually going? No one really knows. Our experience in 2018 is that for most municipalities, it is still something of the future. There have been thoughts and discussions about smart cities, cautiously allocated a small budget and there are initiatives in towards the smart city – such as smart waste bins, street lighting or traffic systems, but remain fiction rather than reality.

However, a city is part of a larger system and in any case of several systems. It is therefore also dependent on system connections with regard to (r) evolutionary development.

An example that we regularly encounter is how the relationships between the various knowledge areas are established within municipalities. The available knowledge and skills seem too fragmented to lead to action. We see the same with installation companies and project coordinators. Compare with the current automotive industry. There, too, consideration is being given to ‘smart cars’, including other forms of driving. Just like a city, the car is part of a larger system and fake revolutions such as the electric car are not a real revolution yet. The concept ´car´, as we have known it for over 130 years, simply equipped with a battery, does not make a smart car yet. For this, the total concept of car must be overhauled.

Back to that city. It will become reality anyway. The initiative of Avans University of Applied Sciences to set up a special ‘smart city academy’, because there are insufficient practically and theoretically trained professionals who have the knowledge and skills to realize smart cities, is a strong response to one of those system limitations. A smart trash can or an app with which city visitors can explore the city are also nice steps, but do not make a smart city. To do this, we need to approach the concept of the city radically differently: we first need to reset in our thinking before we can do it. So, a paradigm shift.

Paradigm shift

The core of a smart city is the collection of various (digital) data. This leads to information to manage a city in a smart way in terms of logistics, environment, safety, weather control, lighting, waste processing, tourist flows, and pollution. And about maintenance, more about that in a moment.

Most of these data is not yet available, because it cannot be measured. To do this, sensors of all kinds must first be installed. A huge job, because what data do you want to collect? What are you going to do with this data? How does data become information? Who applies these sensors? What does that cost and what does it yield? Who pays? What has priority?

In a theoretical sense, there is a lack of knowledge and insight into what will make a smart city smart. After all, measuring can be knowing, but if you don’t measure what you want to know, missing out will result in guessing.

In addition to money and time, priority is still often lacking. In many areas and at all levels. Because what is more important now: care, hands on the bed, local safety or a smart city? This may lead to more safety, dry feet or a cleaner environment, but “my priority does not have to be yours”, according to one political party to the other.

Left or right, smart cities are coming, a paradigm shift is inevitable.

An example from own experience.
As an IT consultancy, we know that an IT project does not exist. It is an organizational project with an ICT component. For example, we already frequently work together within municipalities on ‘smart maintenance’, inextricably linked to ‘smart city’.

Quite simply, maintenance of infrastructures – such as road network, green space, sewerage, waterways – is now mainly planned linearly. Every year, 10% of the structure is checked and, where necessary, repaired or prepared, in addition to resolving calamities or changes initiated by impulses from other systems. The round is repeated after 10 years.

This is not really “smart”. Effective, because it works properly. However?

The paradigm shift, in this case, consists of the smart collection of data from, for example, the sewer network, so that you carry out preventive maintenance where it is needed and do not invest money in maintenance that is far from needed. This data leads to information that, combined with other information, leads to better management. Think of integrating weather influences and forecasts, responding to local misuse of systems such as dumping waste, or managing water levels and quality.

In this way, maintenance-specialized suppliers can collect the correct data and convert it into information about the quality and maintenance requirements of the networks. In order to use smart (EIA) knowledge and skills to carry out cost-efficient and safety-enhancing maintenance.
As a citizen you do not see any of this. You do not smell it, you do not feel it. To create a truly smart city, in addition to immediately visible solutions, a great deal of effort must be put into invisible matters. That makes a true smart revolution so difficult and prioritizing very difficult.

Change if you can

A lot of water will have to pass through the Rhine before all those involved in smart cities are willing to look at it from a different perspective, think in a different way and ultimately act in a different way.

Because what do you do as a manager at a municipality if you are willing, but politics are not. Or if your colleagues are unwilling because it is going well as it is, or is it not? Or if, as a politician, you have good ideas, but you cannot find a majority to finance your plans to increase safety through smart city thinking? And what do you do when all traffic lights are green and a big step can be made towards a future smart city, but there are no suppliers who can deliver what you require? Or there are suppliers, but they cannot make the step from traditional thinking, straight through the paradigm shift, to the new thinking?

As change experts, we know that real organizational change only occurs when everyone involved takes steps to give meaning to the change, by thinking through what that means in a personal sense and how you can contribute to the change. It takes time. It takes patience and trust. And sometimes the change does not work, because you cannot force it, but you can facilitate it.

In short, in addition to wanting it, being able to do and doing it, we still have to invest a lot of time and energy in thinking differently about smart cities. Without this paradigm shift, a smart city remains a smart plan.

And you cannot live in a plan.

About us: i-Sago and What About Change are joining forces to help municipalities think through, develop and transform into a smart city.

Our mission is to use information technology to make the world a better place and improve the quality of life in cities.

I-Sago offers independent advice with an open mind, not tied to a product and always with the aim to unburden our customers and enable them to work more pleasantly and efficiently. We do this based on extensive experience with very diverse customers in the field of asset management, smart city solutions, process optimization, (process) automation and data analysis and fulfill the role as bridge builder between various people and organizations, but also make the connection between person and technology.

What About Change

My mission is to make organizational change a success for everyone in the organization. The motto is: “yourself, but not alone”. Changing yourself is not always easy, let alone if you change with many different people. Organizational change, however, only works in one way. And that is that everyone first changes themselves and then together, so not just alone. I help people in organizations to change.