Eleven Hundred Agency

How tech is smartening up our cities

By Claire Ayles

With a degree in Geography, a now lengthy career in tech PR, and as a long-time resident of London, it’s perhaps no surprise that smart cities are one area of tech that I find immensely interesting and exciting.

While nothing new – smart cities have been talked for decades – this branch of tech is quietly improving city dwellers’ lives, without always getting the focus it deserves.

With this in mind, here’s my homage to the smart city.

Boundless applications

With millions of people living and working in our major cities each day, efficient resource management is imperative. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, robust connectivity, and advanced data analytics combine to keep everything working – whether that’s by optimising energy use, reducing wastewater, monitoring air and noise pollution, optimising for rubbish collections, or reducing traffic. In essence, it helps our councils and local governments to use their finite resources more efficiently, saving cash and the environment at the same time.

Public transport users are also big beneficiaries of smart city technology. Look no further than London’s Oyster Card system, which – unbelievably – is almost 21 years old. But it’s not just contactless systems that keep us all moving at pace, the availability of real-time data means that commuters can flex their routes on the fly, avoiding traffic jams, points failures, leaves on the line, and all the other things that used to try our patience. Citymapper, I salute you! I rarely leave home without first consulting your app. And, on a macro-level, this same data can be used to justify additional investment or find new fresh solutions to existing transport challenges.

There’s also tech to ensure our safety and security. Intelligent street lighting systems that adapt to light and weather conditions, or turn on when a pedestrian comes into range, play a role in deterring crime and keeping our neighbourhoods safe. We’re also seeing the highly innovative use of AI to look for risky or worrying behaviour. For example, check out how Purple Transform is working with Lancaster University to identify people at risk of attempting suicide on the railways.

Still room for improvement

Smart cities are of course a work in progress, and for some places – outside of the major cities – investment is comparatively low, with poor connectivity options and legacy infrastructure at least partially to blame. With projects typically funded and managed on a local or regional level, these initiatives are in some cases exacerbating rather than eliminating the digital divide.

IoT devices and systems are particularly vulnerable to cybersecurity attack. They are also a prize target for hackers, who have the potential to disable critical national infrastructure, causing widespread chaos. There are also privacy and ethical concerns to bear in mind. Mass surveillance, increased automation, and our growing reliance on algorithms all need very careful consideration, together with meaningful community engagement and appropriate regulatory frameworks.

Widespread benefits

Excuse my ‘back in my day’ rant, but when I first moved to London in the early 90s, no one I knew had a mobile phone or even a personal email address. When you arrived at a tube station or bus stop, you had absolutely no idea how long you’d have to wait.

Against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that I’m constantly amazed how tech is improving the efficiency and quality of my day-to-day life in the city. But the benefits go far deeper – smart cities stimulate economic growth, foster innovation and entrepreneurism, and create high-skilled jobs.  

What’s not to love?