What makes Nordic Smart Cities different? Is it the focus on integrated planning approaches that incorporate social, environmental, and economic goals within a holistic framework? Is it the ability of Nordic cities to experiment, innovate, fail, and learn from one another? Or is the presence of high levels of interpersonal and institutional trust allow Nordic cities to develop Quadruple Helix partnerships between cities, citizens, businesses, and research/technology institutions?
Ahead of Nordic Smart Cities – The City 2.0 we conducted an exclusive speaker interview with Patrick Driscoll, Project Developer, Smart Sustainable Cities at NTNU, about Smart City strategies and implementation. His responsibilities include fundraising, application writing support, research project management, teaching, and networking.
What are the key concepts, general ones, that a smart city project needs to be based on in order to be efficiently implemented and to have maximum impact? I think the most important, is the ‘what for’. Why are you doing this? That needs to be clear from the beginning. You need to have a vision and that vision needs to be supported by the people in the city. I have seen surveys conducted in Denmark, the UK, also Sweden and even internally in municipalities and sometimes 50-60 percent of the people have never even heard of Smart Cities even if every city taking part in the survey had Smart City projects. There is a large information barrier even within the city and then further out to the citizens as well as a general reluctance to speak about the projects, particularly those that gather data from citizens via smartphones, travel patterns, or other sensor systems. So what makes a successful Smart City project is clarity on the goals and vision and the contribution the project to the citizens. What must also be taken into account is who are the project owners and who benefits. Most municipalities don’t have a clear set of goals and expectations yet for their Smart City projects and programmes but are very important to have that at the start in order to build a systematic evaluation of the projects in order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over.
In the past decade, there has been a shift in thinking in the cities themselves about their role as engines of innovation. For example, in Denmark, private sector productivity growth has mostly been flat or falling since 2008, which has lead to rethinking the roles of the private and public sectors in terms of innovation. There are structural shifts in the way things happen and municipalities are becoming the driver for new services, products, and systems. Innovation requires an embrace of failure, but small, fast, cheap and learning quickly from your mistakes. It is not usually possible to discover a successful formula on the first attempt. If you want innovation you have to embrace failure and if you embrace failure you need to have a system to reward failure.
That’s the other thing when speaking about how can cities do this, having a reliable university or research partner is really useful because having researchers and students and PhDs on staff is often less expensive than-than hiring permanent staff. The product may not be as polished, may not be as perfect, but you get access to detailed empirical knowledge. And also from the researcher’s perspective, it also gives rich insights into to the day-to-day reality of the complexity of Smart City planning and implementation.
What challenges might a smart city project face and what does it take for the people working on projects to overcome these challenges?
In this regard, I think a lack of awareness and communication are the most important. People need to get the relationship between the Smart City project and what they care about. Most people don’t understand the technical infrastructure like smart street lights, sensors, Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and so they may be excited about it but for the most part, they don’t get it. Smart Cities have primarily been technology-driven, but within the next 5 years, I expect that we will start to see a shift in language due to the fact that planners are accustomed to working in a complex environment. They know that sometimes there is a trade-off, sometimes political factors that override technology, sometimes vice-versa, sometimes you need to know who is your audience, who has an interest that needs to be addressed. Internally, between the long-term and the short-term, what we will see is a shift from the IBM, Oracle or Microsoft CityNext vision which is essentially control panels for systems of systems, but that’s not what makes a city. A city is composed of humans and humans are not machines, we do dumb stuff all the time, we are unpredictable, our behaviours change, our technology changes, our society changes, our economy changes and that’s not water pressure that you can dial up and down, which is frequently the way that technology-driven solutions are applied. These challenges are solvable, but they require a change in the way that we do business and the way we think about our job and what you have to do as a planner and politician.
What do you believe it takes for a country to start planning and implementing Smart City projects?
The easiest thing to do is to look at what is already in place, the individual assets and then think how to couple them. For example, M-Pesa was one of the first mobile payment systems developed in Kenya because the banking sector didn’t service 70 to 80 percent of the population. On the other hand, mobile operators saw an opportunity and noticed that the majority of Kenyans had different needs in comparison to a typical person with a stable job – so they developed M-Pesa in 2007. This is a great example of a Smart City project, using technology to fill unmet human needs. It’s based on 2G technology and working through SMS, you simply send an SMS, the other person receives the SMS, and the mobile operator serves as the bank. The service expanded across Africa, with mobile payments commonplace there years before it arrived in Europe or the US. I believe people over-think the technology side since the smartness of a city is not necessary for this highly evolved, futuristic technology. The smartness of a city resides in its people, in taking the things that you already have and re-combining in unique ways them using tech and creating a bridge to couple resources. Everybody is doing Smart City projects, but why? What is the point? Is it to become a technological wonderland? Hopefully not, because the experiences from the past show that this kind of utopian vision can crash and burn. If the point is to create a better quality of life with more opportunities for people in the city, to make it a better place to live, then yes, you have a chance. They just have to be creative about what is it that they can do and then build on top of that.
What does an event like Nordic Smart Cities mean for the community of experts in the field of Smart City planning?
The thing that really makes the conference valuable is the good mix of city representatives, researchers and industry, interesting people and you don’t see that at a lot of conferences. That is in part because many of the conferences tend to be kind of siloed, cities hanging with cities, universities hanging with universities, but this one has a nice feeling. When I go there I meet a lot of people either friends, connections or former colleagues whom I just don’t get the chance to see very much. The socialising part of it is not to be underestimated. There are enough sessions to keep things interesting and I think you can learn quite a bit just listening to what the other cities are doing. In such context cities tend to be more honest about their problems too. It’s not just a whole sales pitch about how everything is sweet and glorious and it’s all working just fine, because everybody who works in this field knows that is not the case. For me is the combination of good connections, good people, interesting mix and then more openness about what is it that they are trying to do and what their struggles are to get there.
How can an event like Nordic Smart Cities attract more people from countries outside the Nordic region (ex.: Central Eastern Europe)?
The thing you want to give them is the chance to skip a lot of the difficult and expensive mistakes that were made and not be first or even second generation, but be in the third generation of the Smart Cities development cycle. Another point is to give them the chance to talk directly to the people who are implementing these projects, so city planners or politicians can talk to their peers. From a knowledge transfer perspective, that person to person contact is so much better than reading a report or finding material online. A report is public, is usually sanitised and usually has only the good parts, leaving out the parts that are really interesting, like how to get politicians on board, what was done about scoping the project, how were all the complex parts put together, the energy integration, the building site, the transport system integration. These parts are not simple because they cut across all of the different aspects found in the city. This information saves them time and they can take all the smaller bits too, the things that they know will actually work in their city, whether a housing project or renewable energy system project now they have the chance to cherry pick. It is an interesting question too because what transfers and what does is not so clear, either from a research side or a practical side, but I do know for a fact that local clusters of innovation tend to be much less innovative than clusters of innovation that actually reach across international borders. The evidence is overwhelming on that one. Typically, they tend to create these localised innovation centres, around the city or a region, but those cannot work very well because it’s a closed system and you need to be able to grab from the Americas, grab from Africa, grab from Asia and vice-versa because people develop products and services that you had no idea were even possible. And if that can be done in less developed countries with no infrastructure then it can get done in any city. That’s also a thing, being inspired and thinking in a way of “that’s not that complicated, that we can handle.”
Tell me a bit about any exciting projects that you’re currently working on.
We are doing a Climate KIC funded project called Carbon Track and Trace where we have installed real-time sensors on the streets in Vejle, Denmark, and Trondheim, Norway to measure CO2, NO2, and particulate matter from road traffic. The idea is that low-cost sensors combined with Big Data analytics and other data sets may be able to provide more accurate emissions inventories for cities and regions. The project runs to the end of 2016, but we would like to extend the system to more points in the city, test different kinds of sensors, and work on visualizing the data for citizens and planners. The main reason for extending the coverage of the system is that people care more about local air quality than about annual averages. This project is a great example of technology enabling better outcomes. Five years ago these sensors and systems cost up to €50.000, but now the price point has decreased dramatically, the network protocols are open and we can process larger and diverse datasets for little money. The project is also a great example of how Nordic Smart Cities work differently, in that they are willing to take risks, innovation, and experiment in order to create better outcomes for citizens.