Does the smart city concept match the hype?

Estates Gazette, 6 June 2017

Author: Helen Roxburgh

Automatic bins, responsive lamp posts, smart traffic controls, environmental trackers. Welcome to the world of smart cities – intelligent, digitally connected metropolises that use a database to track and tackle urban movement in real time.

Increasingly, smart city technologies are being hailed as the effective and energy-friendly model for urban development of the future; both in terms of managing risks and efficiencies.

In South Korea’s Songdo, the poster child of smart cities, developer Gale and technology partner Cisco created a city that monitors everything, including traffic flow, air quality and emergency services. Rubbish is collected through an automated underground system that sorts the waste, then recycles or burns it.

In Barcelona, which has invested heavily in new technology, authorities say smart water meters save $58m (£44.8m) annually.

London, which has the biggest tech sector in Europe, with a value of £19bn, is the world’s second-smartest city, beaten only by New York.

But it is in developing nations with rapid, mass urbanisation that the smart city concept is particularly popular. In 2014, India announced ambitions to create 100 smart cities, while China says 290 cities have implemented pilot programmes. And these cities represent big business.

In November, Theresa May and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced an Anglo-Indian partnership on smart cities worth £2bn. Engineering firm Arup estimates the international market for smart cities could soon be worth $400bn (£310bn) per year.

But what about the dangers? As the technology advances, more uncertainties continue to surface. If an entire city runs from an operating system, what happens if it crashes? Or worse, if it is targeted by cyber criminals?

Breach of the peace

An estimated 2.3bn connected items will be used in smart cities this year, according to research group Gartner – a 42% increase on 2016. That is a lot at stake if there is a security breach.

A series of high-profile hacks, including the WannaCry cyber attacks in May, have put cyber crime in the spotlight, with experts warning many city systems do not have adequate controls.

Cities using a supervisory control and data acquisition system are particularly susceptible to hacks, as they lack cryptography security and authentication factors. If a hacker targets a city’s SCADA system, they could threaten multiple areas of public health and security at once.

In January, a study from the UK Electrical Contractors’ Association found two-fifths of the world’s buildings face serious risk of cyber attacks. It warned of major security and privacy implications given the projected increase in smart installations.

In 2014, security researchers at the University of Michigan deliberately hacked into 100 traffic lights connected to a wireless network, concluding many of the devices were poorly secured with “a systemic lack of security consciousness”. In 2016, hackers infected a nuclear power plant in Germany; an attack on the Ukrainian energy grid in the same year left 230,000 residents without power.

Access to real-time, open data is often trumpeted as one of the key aims of smart cities but it clashes inherently with the increasing need for protection and security. For the developers of smart technology, the pressure to be the first to market can often trump security.

Risky business

“Some of the technology is being developed without implementing security and privacy by design,” says Rob Kitchin, professor of human geography and director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at Maynooth University. “Typically, what happens is that the technology is developed and then people try to lay on the security afterwards.”

Consultancy PwC estimates companies will be paying $7.5bn (£5.8bn) for cyber insurance by 2020, up from $2.7bn in 2015. Insurance market Lloyd’s of London created a hypothetical scenario where a power blackout in the US left 93m people without power, concluding costs could be anywhere between $21bn and $71bn, demonstrating how difficult it is to accurately anticipate the risks.

The need to tackle cyber crime prompted the establishment of London’s National Cyber Security Centre in 2016, and in November, the UK launched a five-year national cyber security strategy. This included expanding specialist numbers at the cyber crime unit, although critics say leaving the EU will shrink the talent pool.

However, an effective cyber defence is not just down to governments but is a collaboration between market, regulators and officials.

Hakan Agca, associate director at Benoy, says: “The massive growth in urban agglomerations and rapidly advancing technologies that affect everything from our handheld computers through to mass transit indicate the smart cities agenda doesn’t need to be led by governments but will instead manifest itself through private enterprise and public-private partnership.”

While politics itself might not disrupt the trend, smart cities remain inherently political, and retaining innovation funding is a potential hurdle in an age of austerity. In 2015, the government scrapped a £1bn competition to develop Britain’s first carbon capture power plant and subsidies for rooftop solar panels were hit by heavy cuts. The same is a risk for smart city technology. Benoy global director Trevor Vivian warns that “political turbulence could disrupt the progression of new technology”.

He says: “Governments are hampered by funding, politics and the pressure to solve immediate problems rather than look at the longer-term goal of transforming themselves as smart cities.

“It might be easier for private developers – which have the flexibility and agility to create large-scale, mixed-use developments with the latest technology – to push the smart city agenda rather than local governments.”

Seed funding

City agency Smart Dublin runs a smart technology procurement scheme, identifying a city problem and asking the market to develop solutions. Providing seed funding for appropriate schemes, usually at start-up companies, helps both to boost Dublin’s economy and local innovation.

Despite all these fears, the UK government’s innovation agency is still funding smart city tech. In the most recent round of awards, in April, two developers received funding: £115,835 was granted to a company monitoring environmental pollution and emissions, and £24,525 was given to a feasibility research study measuring human traffic and flow. In the same month, the agency also launched a £13m funding round for projects researching clean and affordable energy, and for a share of £470,000 towards proposals to encourage people to cycle or walk.

The European Investment Bank, however, provided £5.6bn for 40 UK projects during 2016, including new hospitals, university campuses and schools. It also provided €25m (£21.8m) to the Horizon 2020 innovation group, of which around €8m went to London projects. London is the lead city in the European Innovation Partnership’s Urban Platforms project – an innovative exchange expected to cease after 2019.

Market forces could also endanger the smart cities movement. Some argue that digital giants such as IBM and Cisco, which develop much of the technology in smart cities, created the entire concept in the first place.

In Adam Greenfield’s book Against the Smart City, he argues: “The notion of the smart city in its full contemporary form appears to have originated within […] businesses, rather than with any party, group or individual recognised for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning.”

He says tech developers “appear to lack any feel for the ways in which cities actually generate value for the people who live in them.”

Much of the current innovation around smart cities is new and Kitchin warns that market forces don’t add up.

He says: “You have a lot of test bedding and urban experimentation going on, you have a lot of trials and prototypes. But if you can’t get cities to buy it, either because they are broke or they don’t trust the technology, then as the developer you have to move on and do something different.”

Brace for change

Those involved in the real estate industry also need to evolve. “The roles of the city planner, urban designer and architect will need to change and adapt,” says Agca. “They will become more complex, with a central role in curating data and dealing with many more parameters than they currently have to contend with.”

Adequate training for these professionals is a new challenge and upskilling is essential.

Chris Fannin, senior vice-president at architecture practice HOK, says: “It’s only in the past couple of years that people have started coming to terms with the value of the data they have and the opportunity that’s there.”

Smart cities also throw up ethical problems. The biggest immediate issue is that smart cities involve collecting huge amounts of data without any individual consent. It’s estimated that driving through just one town in the UK means being pictured on 30 different systems without once being asked for permission.

In 2013, the City of London Corporation made tech company Renew London remove smart recycling bins which featured LCD advertising screens that collected footfall data by tracking and recording passing smartphones.

Smart city technology also does little to reverse social divides. In Boston, an app called Street Bump was intended to collect data by detecting bumps and potholes in the road while driving then automatically relaying it to the city government. However, critics said potholes were being fixed only in wealthier parts of the city where more residents had smartphones, while potholes weren’t fixed in less affluent areas.

This also flags concerns about the commoditisation of cities. As Fannin puts it: “The risk is that ‘smart cities’ are code for ‘monetisation’.”

Designers are concerned the debate will move from using technology to create liveable spaces to focusing purely on financial efficiencies.

Kitchin says: “You can’t fix homelessness with an app.

“It requires political, social and policy solutions. That’s the danger with this notion of smart cities; it promotes this idea that you can fix everything with technology but there’s actually a lot of things that are wrong in the city that need to be fixed with other types of solutions.”

UK positions itself as smart city marketplace

As part of a UK strategy to market smart technology to the rest of the world, funding has been put into a number of test bed developments. Innovation agency Innovate UK has invested £100m in the past five years on smart technology and the government has plans to boost international trade through marketing smart city best practice and a marketplace for smart city technology, standards and consultancy. Most experts expect that in the post-Brexit era, this focus will accelerate as the government seeks new trade partnerships. “Smart cities would help the UK to compete with other global cities for talent and business,” says Í Trevor Vivian.

Political will shows no public sign of abating. In February, minister of state for international trade Greg Hands declared the UK “can be recognised as the global hub of smart city technology” and “use our already enviable capability in this area to make the world’s cities more sustainable, responsive and smart.”


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