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People before profits: Is a new focus needed in smart city development?

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: chombosan/ iStock)
(Credit: chombosan/ iStock)

You finish work at 6pm. Whipping out your phone as you walk to the door, an app has already calculated the best route home, including some preordained exercise.

Heading outside, you grab a bike from the rack and cycle to the station – once there, you jump on a train without a thought about tickets or even showing your phone. Off the train, an autonomous pod slides up and you get in, your favourite team’s game automatically flickering onto the screen.

You finish shopping for dinner on the same app you first opened at work, and as you arrive the pasta ingredients are already waiting at home.

It is an enticing vision of frictionless travel in the smart city of tomorrow. But before it becomes reality, says Gilad Rosner, the starting point must be changed – people before profits, ensuring privacy and the system’s long-term success.

Smart city transport

Countries and corporations around the world are embracing the possibilities of connected transport and Internet of Things (IoT) systems at different rates, enticed by new levels of efficiency but sometimes held back by investment and infrastructure issues.

On the last day of the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, Tim Paridaens from Deloitte Consulting shows what smart city transport can do. In a slickly-animated video with bouncy music perhaps at odds with the noticeably thinned crowd, ‘Ben’ travels through his futuristic journey home.

The system, parts of which are already implemented in different cities around the world, involves a completely connected transport network. Ben hires bikes, catches trains and hails autonomous pods automatically with his mobile, the network using his history, location and data from thousands of other users to provide seamless routes and options, all paid for by-the-mile.

The app handles everything from one-off insurance cover per journey, to grocery shopping and entertainment en route. The network provides constant real-time monitoring, while city planners and private sector operators collaborate on maintenance.  

Pietro Biasci, Tim Paridaens, Gilad Rosner and Teppo Rantanen at the IoT Solutions World Congress

Pietro Biasci, Tim Paridaens, Gilad Rosner and Teppo Rantanen at the IoT Solutions World Congress

While the video presents a utopian system with no friction for individual users, Rosner, founder of the IoT Privacy Forum, says people themselves must not just be considered as customers and data sources for smart city operators.

“The users in a city have a limited amount of contribution to the creation of these systems,” he says. “There are a lot of different competing interests in the city and sometimes keeping the citizens’ interests in mind does not necessarily work with profitability.”

However, he says it is vital that projects put citizens’ rights first to ensure their privacy is protected. People must come first if companies and local government hope to create sustainable systems, he adds.

Local governments has a “tremendously important” role in preventing companies from abusing data rights, he claims. One main concern is smart city operators might pool disparate data on people’s movements, spending and personal information, creating profiles linked directly to users.

“These are not simple problems,” admits Rosner. “The message is open data is great… but you have to spend more money and have additional oversight.” This investment in citizens’ rights might prevent projects from being initially profitable, he adds.  

Future locomotives

Fellow panellist Pietro Biasci, working for Hitachi Vantara on advanced smart rail projects, says other aspects of the IoT could ensure profitability for operators – predictive maintenance and machine learning.

“We can really understand what to do in advance,” he says, referring to his company’s ability to know which train parts need fixing before problems arise. Hitachi Vantara also analyses data from 1,000 sensors in each train to improve future locomotives. “It is a cycle which is improving each and every time you apply it,” he says.

As well as keeping services running, predictive maintenance also means far fewer spare trains are needed, says Biasci – going from 50% of traditional fleets to 5%. The advances offered by the IoT means companies can still make money while shifting the focus to users, he claims.

Responding to Rosner’s privacy concerns, Biasci says Hitachi Vantara uses encrypted data and a security module in its IoT platform to protect users. The software reveals where information is held, what is being done with it and who is using it, reportedly maintaining people’s privacy despite surveillance equipment creating advanced “heatmaps” of users’ movements.

Comprehensive view

The panellists are also joined by Teppo Rantanen, executive director of innovation at the developing Finnish smart city of Tampere. The project combines elements from across the smart spectrum, including digitalisation of education, smart industry with machine learning and integrated digital health services. “We are working on this with a really, really comprehensive view of how we can put all these elements together,” he says.

The vision Rantanen paints of future projects is one led by corporations – he says cities must be the “platform” for operators, including banks and telecomm companies, to work on. However, he firmly states local government’s responsibility to regulate and temper commercial interests where possible.

The panellists agree that for smart cities to succeed, collaboration is key – people, businesses and governments must work together if the seamless and secure world of tomorrow is to become reality.


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