We are all familiar with the antiseptic conformity of future cityscapes as presented in thousands of magazine illustrations and slide presentations on smart city topics. The sky is always blue so the air looks pure, the water sparkles, the grass is green and there is nothing as vulgar as residual waste anywhere to be seen. Actual cities today of course struggle with some pretty intractable and old-fashioned environmental problems. This is true not just in developing countries – the air pollution in Cairo catches in your throat – but here in the UK urban recycling rates can lag twenty percentage points below rural areas and NO2 levels are dangerously high.
The promise implicit in the images is that at the same time as connecting citizens, eliminating congestion, delivering personalised healthcare at home and doing many other things, smart technology will steadily eradicate environmental problems as well.
Two years ago, EIC started a piece of work to understand in more depth whether this was the case. For our purposes we defined smart city initiatives as those which use power of networked devices (both centrally-controlled and citizen-controlled) and big data to improve the functioning and capability of cites. We published a report Getting the green light: Will smart technology clean up city environments? which looked at how smart city technology was being applied around the world in real life city situations. In terms of environmental challenges the results were mixed. We found some interesting and largely unknown initiatives happening (for example Utrecht experimented in 2013 with rerouting HGVs in real time through the city in response to live air pollution data from pollution hotspots). We also found that smart tech approaches can offer some new ways to tackle problems such as helping to bring citizens into play in tackling problems – for example through apps that allow smart phone photos of fly tipping to be uploaded to a database to help local authorities see patterns of waste crime.
But progress was limited. Only 20% of smart city initiatives were focused on environmental issues, and of these, we could not find any that resulted in an impact of more than 10-15% on specific pollution levels targeted.
We also found a fragmented market. Cities told us they were nervous of the hard sell from the tech giants, and were also reluctant to invest in smart tech that had not already been deployed at scale somewhere else. Smart tech start ups, including those in EIC membership, told us they did not know how to approach cities. And even within cities, often the environmental services department and the smart city team were not talking to each other.
We decided to do further work on this topic with the twin aim of increasing market interaction and exploring in more detail the most effective ways for smart tech to be applied on environmental urban problems. The result is our new website www.sustainablesmartcities.org which includes a searchable database of smart environmental tech case studies, and a related series of events and seminars which we will be launching later this year. A small step towards making sure that those ‘artists impressions’ of what our future cities will be like do come true.