Read Parts I and II of this story.
The core of any evolutionary urban project is no longer technology but people. Cities also embrace ICT as one of the main drivers of successful implementation of Smart City projects. It is important to reemphasise that the old concept of IT (information technology) was upgraded by the addition of “communication”. In this case, communication is related to the capacity not only for one-way flows of information but to creating an interaction between the two sides: one that wants to inform and the other that is using and reacting to the information.
And the trend is towards even deeper use of technology in the Internet of Things (IoT) era. Information and communication technology is being used to connect people to people, people to machines and machines to machines. Items in daily use like home appliances, bikes and cars are being connected. Public lighting is becoming smart and connected, as are water meters, car parking and so on. That said, the first step to scale any tech-based project is to enable complete, ubiquitous and full-time internet connection in the city. The internet is becoming as important as a reliable and stable utilities supply (power, water or gas) to a city.
Scaling tech projects for inclusive urban development
Case study: The magic box – a “plug-and-play” Internet connection on a national scale.
Athonet is an Italian high-tech company. They have developed a solution to create large-scale internet coverage. They won the Global Mobile Awards 2016 in the category of Best Solution for Growing Smaller or Independent Networks issued by the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona. There are Facebook’s partners in the project to take free Wi-Fi worldwide. Athonet has successfully enabled customers worldwide to deploy local internet networks, simply, cost-effectively and in record time. Basically, they can enable a complete full internet network in a vast area with an initial cost of less than 5 percent of a normal investment budget by replacing all the expensive hardware with simple software running on standard IT servers.
Connectivity and internet access are important elements in promoting digital inclusion and facilitating access to information. In this way, cities in developing countries can also benefit from these new disruptive and affordable technologies.
Connectivity also has applications in disaster management. Athonet developed a humanitarian service during the large earthquake in Italy in 2012. Within just a few hours they deployed a complete local wireless internet network in the affected area 35 kilometres north of Bologna. It allowed the Italian civil protection teams to run operations using HD live-streaming videos of the disaster area to control centres, communicating and co-ordinating the activities of emergency personnel and helping save lives.
The main competitive advantage of the system is the low initial cost to the government or company seeking to establish city-wide internet networks. It removes the huge barrier to deployment of city-wide networks that comes from the cost of conventional technologies. Costs fall from seven or eight figures to a few thousand dollars. It is a pay-per-use model in which app companies, developers and finally the end-user will pay the bill in the long term.
As the concept is still in development, all the potential applications have still not been fully released. Considering, for example, the great challenge Europe is facing with the refugees, technologies like this could facilitate better management. Recent research done with refugees in Europe revealed that Wi-Fi is one of and perhaps the major need when they first reach the camps. “A lack of connectivity constrains the capacity of refugee communities to organize and empower themselves, cutting the path to self-reliance” according to UNHCR.
Smart credit for financial inclusion and economic sustainability
Case: ZmartCredit: New technologies to propel Smart City development.
Smart credit is a concept that is becoming widespread in newly industrialised countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India. These are large, populous countries with young populations. Though they are all huge economies in terms of GDP, credit is not only a local need, it is also an important economic tool to promote economic development and social inclusion. One of the most successful cases in this field is a spin-off called Salaryfits, based in London. They have combined two traditional financial tools to develop the product they call ZmartCredit: salary deduction loans and big data deep integration, powered by a cutting-edge business intelligence platform.
The basic solution proposed by Salaryfits is a Business Intelligence (BI) tool to quickly and efficiently integrate the credit offered by local providers into the payroll systems of organisations, regardless of whether the users are public administrations or private companies. Salaryfits will process this information and allow the credit providers to better access the credit profile of the employees of those entities. This technology helps reduce credit risk and enables employees to get interest rates lower than with other modalities. It works well with all stakeholders involved: the local financial institutions and other providers, companies and employees (citizens), who can get access to cost-effective, convenient credit lines, with the possibility of comparing costs and doing simulations online, in the same way that they currently do when searching for flight tickets and hotel rooms on Kayak or TripAdvisor.
Once the individuals decide what the best offer is, they can easily get the credit from the institution chosen and the instalment/repayment will be automatically deducted each month from their salary. It means that it does not matter if you are a citizen or not or whether you have a previous credit record or even a good credit rating, you can get good, fair credit offer whenever you need it. This is process that until now has been totally connected to your social status is becoming smarter and tailored to our new “Smart Citizens” profile.
Back to the challenge of the refugees, this technology could be used to help governments to better manage the huge and intense flux of financial resources. With just one tech solution we could distribute the money to the people in need (refugees) and better manage it, promote the local economy and bring full transparency to the whole process, avoiding traditional problems such as corruption and the misuse of financial resources.
Lessons learned and/or policy recommendations
With all these new paradigms, the whole concept of urban planning and development needs to be adjusted. Previously, the success of a city development project was a matter of “fighting” for budgets, non-repayable loans or grants from national government or financial support from international organisations.
This approach is now almost obsolete. Projects were designed to suit the requirements related to these funds rather than to be economically sustainable or to promote the city’s real competitive advantages. Solutions were ICT-oriented instead of citizen-centred. Problems are rising due to migration and population concentration, and new wise solutions are being deployed to improve people’s well-being.
Hence, citizens should be at the core of the new policies, followed by the economic sustainability of any new initiative implemented at the local level. Here is a four-step process that can help policymakers to implement inclusive and sustainable urban projects:
Step 1 – Sharpen the city’s pitch
People have a deep connection with their cities, even deeper than with their province, region or country. To understand the unique DNA of the city and translate it in a strategy to develop a wiser city will be crucial for the success of any project. Citizens do not want a new city, they want a better city to live in.
Step 2 – Keep it simple
When thinking about the projects to solve or how to mitigate urban problems very often policymakers use the traditional top-down approach and keep their focus on long-term complex plans. Huge infrastructure changes, billion-dollar master plans and state-of-the-art technology can bring you a well-rounded road map, but is it doable? Does the city have the resources to make it happen?
All concepts and applied technologies should be observed in a harmonious combination between timing and budget and should definitely be focused on making citizen’s daily life better. Keeping it simple, and focusing on solutions that can have a deep, positive impact for starting and good results will help the city to attract partners and investors.
Step 3 – Find the right partners
As mentioned above, creative and sharing economies are driving the new economy. Start-ups oriented to urban solutions are emerging around the world. Some of them from newly industrialised markets such as Russia, China, Brazil and India are also showing the world new wise solutions. Probably the challenging reality faced in these countries is helping these enterprises to develop creative and affordable solutions. These companies are striving to go global and prove the effectiveness of their solutions and they need international cases to enhance their portfolio. It means that the city can get good cooperation agreements based on mutually beneficial terms with these companies.
Rio de Janeiro, for example, has partnered with WAZE, the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation application, to develop a city traffic management solution on a win-win basis in 2013. Rio solved the problem of few cameras in the city and WAZE was able to develop, pilot and test a new product that is already being fully monetised. The focus lies not in asking for more budget but instead what value the city can offer in order to attract strategic partnerships.
Step 4 – The new 4Ps approach
More than a step, this is a radical shift in the political mindset. One of the most popular and most effective tools to promote investment attraction to public projects is the public-private partnership (PPP). These are basically contracts between the government and the private sector, in which a governmental authority allows the private sector to invest in and operate a public service. It is raising now the concept of PPPPs, public-private-people partnerships, which go deeper into the idea of citizen-centred approaches. People become active stakeholders in the process of planning, developing, testing, implementing and evaluating urban policies.
All in all, a successful model of urban development will go hand in hand with an increased sense of well-being within the city environment. This is particularly relevant because, firstly, the smart cities already built are not delivering the eco-friendly, hyper-connected future they set out to (e.g. Masdar, Songdo, and eco-cities in China) and secondly cities are accommodating more and more inhabitants who do not succeed in achieving a higher quality of life.
Understanding the urban determinants of intercity flows is indispensable to the city’s capacity to improve its citizens’ well-being. Therefore, it is argued that a city (space) depends on “glocal wisdom”, which requires an understanding of the interdependency between “world” processes acting upon the city (global and regional competition), and subjective “people” processes within the city (local sustainability).
Only by understanding this interdependency can “technology innovation” and “urban planning policy” be used as devices to achieve Wise Cities. Competitiveness needs to be steered at an urban planning level while taking glocal conditions into account, which is an argument for uniting the theoretical fields of Happiness Economics, Smart Cities, Urban Competitiveness and World City Networks.
Renato de Castro is a member of the advisory board of Smart Cities Asia 2016, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and of the global advisory board of Leading Cities NGO, located in Boston.