Smart City Concept in the IoT age

First some words about myself in order to introduce my point of departure. I’ve been mayor for a long time in a Finnish municipality. Now I’m having a month off to get new insights and to contribute to Wapice with my experience from the public sector. It is meant as a cross-pollination of experiences.

The Smart City concept has been around since the 1960s. In the course of history the concept has had different profiles. Many of the early inventions are now part of everyday planning in the administrative bodies, for instance the use of aerial photography and data collection as a basis for data-driven decision-making.

Collecting information – but what for?

The digital revolution is, of course, continuously changing the Smart City concept. Small sensors can be put almost anywhere and loads of data can be gathered. ‘What for?’ is the big question in administrative bodies all over the world. Will we be having yet another graph with nice-to-know information, but without any practical use?

The honest answer is that all graphs won’t be useful. But there will also be a lot of graphs with practical use, so let’s focus on them. As a matter of fact, the key question is to identify the relevant information within the data flow. Analysing the noise of data, you can note that a shift has indeed occurred. The technology is now mature to give new insights at an affordable price, which is important. You can analyse traffic flows directly from a live feed with the help of artificial intelligence. Central energy consumption monitoring of a building fleet is easy to install. Streetlights can be dimmed when there is no need to have them in full power. You can measure even the smallest thing. And from this entirety you will be able to find new trends. The Smart City concept is once again changing – to become an integrated part of the broader sustainability concept.

But dimming lights is far from enough if you want to tackle the biggest challenge of mankind – the climate change. If smart cities are going to be really smart, they must raise their ambitions, and with that those of the Smart City concept. In almost all policy documents, for instance that of “100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030” by the European Union, key expectations are put on the role of digitalization to reduce the emission levels. Can the companies meet the expectations and deliver what is expected? What is the role of the modern Smart City concept?

Smarter for the citizens, smarter for the environment

In my opinion, we are seeing only the beginning of the shift towards a more sustainable policy. To a much broader extent than before we need tangible results out of the promise to combat the climate change. Resources must be targeted more exactly. The Smart City concept must deliver. As cities stand for 70 percent of the global emissions, the reduction of those is a key mission for humanity. Not less.

The cities need a far more knowledge-driven steering mechanism. This is where the modern Smart City concept starts to take shape. To be able to get an overall picture about the society’s total impact on the climate, you will need data from different sources. You cannot anymore wait for the official national statistics to be updated before you start planning to act, so to say.

Rurik Ahlberg, Visiting Expert, Wapice Oy

National statistics are not always updated even annually. Data is now very scattered. Water quality data is often collected by national administrative bodies, usually for their own usage and designed for their own purposes. The same goes for air quality data, forest growth data, and so on. A lot of data is produced by the authorities, but the data is not meant to be analysed by somebody else. The Finnish Forest growth data can be read from an Excel document with 29 tabs. To get the whole picture you must dig deep into many sources and make your own analyses, which is both time-consuming and far from practical – nor meaningful.

I know you shouldn’t oversimplify things, but what comes to data collection and analyses, a certain degree of simplification and data quality refinement is needed in the modern Smart City concept. It is not enough to offer a technical product. You must also be able to provide a scientific knowledge base for both collecting the data and for analysing it.

To be able to make the best possible decisions, it is important that you have a broad background information. At the moment cities don’t necessarily even have information of the block by block energy consumption. That is because that data is collected by the energy companies for their purposes. Again, data is produced for the inner purposes of the company. Of course, you might have a gut feeling where lot of energy is being used. Yet, you can’t solely rely on a gut feeling when leading a whole society towards a zero-emission target.

Leading a municipality is a complicated mission. A myriad of actions will be needed if we are to achieve the zero-emission target. So let the Smart City concept give the municipalities and cities a hand. There won’t be any short cuts. Nor for the cities nor for the companies.

A great number of cities have set up a zero-emission target. Every ambitious city must do that. It is a question of positioning among all other cities. Concrete actions, but also a marketing profile. But are these zero-emission goals real zero-emission goals? No, they aren’t. They can be ambitious emission reduction goals and long ambitious action lists. But the truth is that cities don’t know have to become totally CO2 neutral. The path ahead is still long, even though some cities are more in the forefront than others.

This all suggests that the Smart City concept must make a shift towards trying to answer the objectives of the whole humanity from being more of a service concept and a system for data collection.

Only then are we in fact smart.