Essential learnings of a smart city initiative
After four years of intense work on the Presqu’ile smart city project in Grenoble, France, let me share with you two aspects of the initiative that are absolutely central to a smart city initiative success. The shift to urbanization is one of the most significant societal trends of our age, and if we are going to ensure the quality of urban life we need to start thinking differently about how we organize and deliver services.
The Presqu’ile quarter of Grenoble is a relatively small urban area – around 250 hectares in total. Grenoble sees Presqu’ile as an opportunity to explore the city of the future, with considerable support from central government. It has a strong density of innovative business and research activity and now also includes a combination of social housing and student accommodation. The people who live and work there are conscious of the social, economic and environmental aspirations held for the urban space they occupy.
Citizen involvement: incentive and social responsibility
With the smart city initiative, we knew from the start that intelligent service provision would be data-driven. With any data-driven activity, there is an immediate risk that people perceive it as intrusive – that the authorities are trespassing on personal lifestyles.
In addition, as people have become more aware that their personal data has a commercial value, they are rightly concerned that data gathered will be exploited commercially by third parties.
For a smart city initiative, we need to ensure that people are not worried about personal privacy issues from the start, and the best way to do so is to actively involve the community directly.
This is not about presenting plans and ideas once they have taken shape. It is about inviting those who live and work in the area to participate from the very beginning, with a strong emphasis on community education.
It will also be necessary to provide the assurance that personal data will never be used without authorization, and will certainly not fall into the hands of organizations wanting to turn it to commercial advantage.
This commitment to open involvement and communication will benefit the initiative in many ways. Not only will you gain the active support of local residents and businesses, but you also benefit from a far broader spectrum of ideas than if the process is conducted by a cabal of urban planners.
Data platform at the heart of smart cities initiatives
In a smart city, we use the data available to optimize existing services and design new ones. We use data to maximize the efficiency of public transport systems and to consider new options. We use it to minimize the negative environmental impact of human activity while ensuring warmth, clean water and safe public lighting. We use it to minimize the volumes of waste we generate and to maximize our ability to recycle.
All of this and more sits at the heart of smart city initiatives.
And all the data behind it is generated at different rates on different platforms. Realistically, you cannot impose standardized data platforms on multiple specialist service providers – everybody has heritage systems, rules of governance, and limited IT budgets.
So what we need to do is establish a virtual data platform, where the data flows from multiple discrete sources can be analyzed and elaborated. This is a hardcore technical challenge, but it is perfectly possible, especially today with a new generation of data scientists and tools at our disposal.
This may all sound a bit abstract, but with a common data platform and public support in place, exciting new things can start to happen. Street lighting and traffic control systems, for example, can be tuned to what’s actually happening – minimizing energy consumption and delivering a better public service.
Every city council is faced with the challenge of delivering great services despite tightly controlled budgets. In the Presqu’ile initiative, water, waste, gas and electricity providers are working together to make their contribution to the city of the future.
Right now, with the emergence of the internet-of-things and the rise of real time data analytics, we are in a position to radically rethink our cities for the better.
But let’s not forget the basics. Wherever we seek to create value through shared data, we need to ensure that contributors have the incentive and the understanding needed to participate from the start, and that the community of service providers have access to a common data platform from which to imagine and initiate new services.
If you’d like to learn more about the experience of Presqu’ile, you may enjoy this short five-minute video summary of the project.