Smart city in context (1). Competitiveness (part 1): ICT companies & service providers

[Versión en castellano]

Currently, cities are the basis of power in the world, the generation and management center of economic activity and the main source of problems and solutions of all kinds. The world population living in cities has recently overcome the level of 50%, and this share will continue growing. Cities are the focus for all social, economical and environmental issues.

This growing attention to the cities has its parallel in the smart city concept. On 2012/08/19 a search for smart city in www.google.es, gave 401 million results. Doing the same search on 2012/11/24, when only three months had passed, gave 810 million results …!

You can get a general idea about what a Smart city is in Wikipedia . In any case, as we saw in a previous articlesmart city is an elastic concept that extends to virtually all areas of urban activity. It is not still a well-defined concept and everyone can use it according to his personal criteria. But there is a general agreement on that it deals with the use of information and communications technology (hereinafter ICT) to improve the performance, sustainability, and quality of life in cities.

In my opinion, as we already saw in the said article, the best and most important contribution of this concept has to do with competitiveness. A kind of competitiveness that boosts improvement for both the people asking for solutions (citizens and urban managers) and for the potential solution providers (ICT companies, urban services providers, entrepreneurs,…and even the citizens themselves). This post has my personal ideas about the meaning of this competitiveness for each of those players in the context of the smart city concept, and about what they seek and expect from it.

Let’s consider first the case of ICT companies and city managers. Everybody knows the huge development that information and telecommunication technology has had in recent times, both in hardware and software. Its future potential growth is exponential in many fields. Consequently, there is a very high potential offer of products and services by ICT companies looking for a demand large enough to allow for business growth. ICT companies are therefore very interested in a very fast development of the smart city concept. On the other side, digital systems are very good at giving solutions to many of the problems associated with the management of the resources needed by the cities (matter, energy and information): from the energy consumption optimization to the efficient management of the citizens’ health; from the real-time delivery of better information to drivers to avoid congestion and waste of time to the geopositioned commercial offerings; from the logistics of transport and delivery of goods, to the water and solid waste management, etc. Therefore, the smart city concept stimulates the competitiveness of ICT companies to research and develop new advanced systems to be the first one to find cities wishing to implement their products and services for significantly improving their functioning and their citizens’ and visitors’ quality of life.

In this context, it is not easy to discern what goes before: the vast amounts of data generated by today’s digital cities (services, infrastructure, activities, …) and citizens (social networks, e-commerce, …), or the storage and management capabilities that current technologies (cloud computingBig Data,…) provide at relatively low cost, allowing for a better urban management with a better decision-making process. Anyway, it is clear that both things feed themselves back, giving rise to an exponential growth in the near future. The foreseen massive new data sources that will arise from the Internet of things go well in the same direction.

Exhibit 1.-Hardware & software growing needs in the Smart cities

In Exhibit-1 I show my vision of this feedback loop: more data availability requires extra hard and soft development to cope with it. The results obtained this way allow to improve the quality of life in the city and lead also to imagine new possibilities for new analyses. To work out on these new possibilities requires new data in turn, and so on indefinitely … until the next technological paradigm shift.

This feedback loop  also fuels a new competitiveness feedback loop. Thus, urban managers want more sophisticated tools that enable them for better decision-making to improve the city and make it more attractive. And then ICT companies try to give them new solutions, by competing themselves to develop and offer the most efficient tools ever.

Let’s look now at the case of operators of urban services (water, gas, electricity, telecommunications, mobility, urban waste, etc.). All these services have been regularly incorporating digital systems and tools to improve the quality of services, to improve their operational performance and to cut the environmental impact of the services provided. But new technological developments allow a faster progress on these lines, since it is possible to have new and cheaper sensors, cloud computing, big data, geopositioning systems, crowdsourcing, crowdsensing, etc.

Now, all this is part of the traditional vertical model, in which each service provider controls and has a clear perception of what is happening within his own service, but has very limited information about what is happening in the other services. This is so because of the obvious need for specialization, on the one hand, but also because of technological difficulties to go beyond that. But that was the case … until now.

Indeed, now the capabilities of the new technological developments allow for a complementary and transversal view in the smart city. This, in turn, allows for a much more efficient and safe provision of the services, thanks to an integrated view of all of them and their possible interactions. Beyond the advantages this gives to the specific urban services managers, it also gives city managers and citizens the possibility of having an image of the city closer to reality than we have today by the mere information aggregation of the different isolated services. This possibility takes shape in what is usually known as the integrated urban services platform, to which I will soon dedicate an entire post in this series, given its importance.

In this line of smart city, therefore, urban services are pushed to join a stronger transversal relationship with other services, improving the interactions among them. This will result in a better city management, since it will not only improve efficiency, sustainability and quality of life, but also safety, since the most serious infringements to the city normal life are often caused by negative interactions among two or more services.

All of it will rise a more serious consideration of the concept of resilience, ie the various urban systems ability to react against unexpected events and disasters of all kinds. Analysing the resilience of the urban systems requires an integrated look across all the urban services since -as I already pointed out- disasters are rarely cause or result of a failure in a single system or service.

It is clear, therefore, that from this transversal view of the urban services, the providers of such services are likely to expand their focus to the city itself as a system of systems, far beyond their traditional view, solely focused on their specific service. Consequently, as a result of the smart city effect, the urban services providers are already aware and improving their competitiveness innovating with new management models and a more open culture, positioning themselves more as city managers than a particular service managers.

Of course, this innovative approach is the one we are developing in Agbar/Aqualogy, with an open and collaborative view, as we are dealing with an issue as broad and complex as the city is. This approach involves strengthening partnerships with other leading companies in their own sectors. But it also requires a better and deeper understanding of the citizens’ needs and expectations, and opening a space for collaboration with entrepreneurs, who usually bring a dynamic and innovative culture and a viral action ability in Internet.

Well, in this first part of the chapter of competitiveness associated with the concept of smart city, I have followed a top-down approach. This approach goes from technology to its impact on the city management. In a forthcoming second part, I will complete this analysis with a bottom-up approach, based on the citizens needs and what they expect from the smart city.

Meanwhile, I warmly invite every Internet surfer passing through here to leave here his comments and insights.

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