Expert Perspective: Digital Cities

Posted by Jess Thorpe | 14-Jul-2017 16:44:04

Connecting citizens and automating urban environments has been a fascinating area for technology development over the last few years.

I caught up with Simon Giles, Accenture’s leading expert on Digital Cities, to discuss the latest on ‘smart cities’ and get his opinion on the disruptive potential of autonomous transport.

Simon leads the Accenture ‘Digital Cities’ team globally, helping cities and corporations understand how digital technology can make cities run more smoothly. 

The concept of the smart city has been kicking around for some time now. Tell us a little bit about what a “smart city” is?

It’s a somewhat vexed question, but most people are referring to ‘smart’ cities today as cities which are using digital technology to make themselves more efficient and effective in service delivery.

“the definition of a smart city was specifically about sensing and control technologies….it was about embedding sensing into the fabric of the city”

More traditionally, the definition of a smart city was specifically about sensing and control technologies – so IoT technology – to give the city more situational awareness on what’s happening in it; so it was about embedding sensing into the fabric of the city, and then using that information to manage it more effectively. If you talk about smart metering in electricity, that’s about putting sensors into a meter to enable two-way communication; if you think about smart water in the water industry or, even smart transport, it’s a similar concept. If you then extrapolate that to the city as a whole, you’re taking sensing and control technology and implementing that in the city.

Over time, this has morphed into to a much broader definition, which is the wide-ranging use of technology to deliver urban services.

Has there been a move away from a focus on technical capabilities and hardware, towards the user experience?

That’s been a transition over last eight years or so. Initially, the drive for smart cities was pushed heavily by technology companies marketing their products and services to cities. They saw it as an untapped market. This resulted in lots of hoopla, conferences, meetings etcetera, at the time. As a consequence, we saw a whole series of pilot projects, where technology companies invested in certain cities to demonstrate proof of concept, and how their products could be applied in an urban context. But that never really translated into large scale sales. Then the crunch came. Technology companies, having made significant investments, didn’t get the returns. There was a loss of confidence, or at least a consolidation. My critique, which echoed several others’ critique of the industry at that time, was that this was because they were trying to sell technology and not solve real world problems. So what we’ve seen is this swing back towards a view of, ‘how do we use design, ethnography, and human-centred social science approaches to understand what kind of problems we can realistically solve with technology?’ We can then think about the application of technology in that context – i.e. we think about the problem, and then go into the engineering, rather than start with the engineering and identify a problem afterwards.

“how do we use design, ethnography, and human-centred social science approaches to understand what kind of problems we can realistically solve with technology?”

In this initial period, where products were being sold to smart city operators on an industry by industry basis, is there a standout example of what worked?

It’s hard to put your finger on that. In the early stages, there were two schools of thought. Vertical service providers, those who did smart parking, smart water, or smart metering for example, were really trying solve a relatively tightly defined problem. Then there were the kind of urban ‘digital utopians’ who were looking at a full urban operating system to connect the devices in the city, collecting all that data in a central repository and performing analytics.

Those two coincided. The digital utopian viewpoint was that within the architecture you could deliver those vertical solutions. But they wanted more – a model that allowed you to compare one vertical to another and to identify new products and services. I think what we’ve seen occur is much more in moderation. Cities have never really had the appetite to invest in this digital urban utopia. I think the smart Singapore and smart Dubai programs are the closest there is. Even over the last 18 months, we’ve seen both of those row back in terms of the level of ambition they’re trying to deliver, and also, whether they’re trying to achieve that with bespoke software or are they just trying to create a platform of platforms approach, in which they’re happy to have multiple ecosystems existing as long as they’re able to extract data and then use them to do different analytics.

So we’ve seen that divergence. There are people that sell vertical solutions in specific places because it’s less messy – and there are still places trying to do something more transformational.

Moving a bit closer to home, what are the challenges for London and its digitisation?

London’s a leading city. The bigger challenges in London probably relate to governance. It’s an extremely complex, governance mechanism. There are the Boroughs, the GLA, the Met Police, TfL, and all of them are powerful organisations in their own right. For the mayor and GLA specifically, it’s hard for them to design and deliver digital strategy – I think we’ve seen that over the last few years. They’ve had several attempts to create a cohesive digital strategy that has never really succeeded to the extent that some smaller and more focused cities have. That’s the challenge of operating within a very complex governance environment – the question of who has responsibility for delivering those challenges is diffuse. Notwithstanding those challenges, London is very technically advanced, and we have some of the best technologists and technology around our city. So it has the potential to succeed in spite of those challenges. The question is, how much more dominant would London be if it really did have a cohesive digital strategy, and clear lines of responsibility? If you look at other cities in the UK, I could point to several that have a strong track record of delivering innovation – Bristol, Peterborough, Glasgow – all of those have been effective at driving innovation in the smart cities arena.

To finish off, let’s look at driverless cars. What ownership models do you predict, and what could be their impact on the city? 

I think it’ll be hybridised and highly fluid over time. I think what you will see is every conceivable variation coexisting in the city, and the balance of power between them shifting over time. As autonomous technology improves, there will be a gradual transition towards autonomy and beyond, based on the efficiency and utility of those vehicles. Will there still be people who want to drive V8 muscle cars? Yes – but for the same reason people still ride horses. They don’t ride horses because it’s a more efficient way of travelling around the countryside, it’s because it’s a passion. When it comes to utility transportation – i.e. getting from one point to another, going shopping, taking the kids to school – people will find the most efficient, safe, and cost-effective mechanism possible. In our cities, that may well still be public transportation, because obviously mass transit shares the cost of ownership across a much larger cohort, and there are sunk costs. But I do think the share of the market that currently sits with privately owned non-autonomous cars will erode, in favor of owned or rented autonomous vehicles. As the technology improves, fleet managers will move towards autonomous, because the economics will state that it is much more efficient and effective than having a driver. So I believe you’ll see fleets of autonomous vehicles emerge, which will compete directly with taxi and minicab services.

“I believe you’ll see fleets of autonomous vehicles emerge, which will compete directly with taxi and minicab services”

I also think we’ll see a hybrid model where people will want to own their own autonomous cars, because the legacy of ownership is still very strong. Also, we’ll see hybrids where people buy a car and make it available for ridesharing for the proportion of time they’re not using it. We are also likely to see hybrid transportation modes evolving, where people switch from public mass transit to autonomous services, then to walking or cycling, all in one journey. It will be increasingly seamless, as the digital technology allows that to be as efficient and effective as it can be.

Topics: Case Studies & Interviews

Written by Jess Thorpe

Jess leads on the research and content for Nimbus Ninety, searching out the latest trends and disruptions affecting our dynamic community of disruptive leaders.

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