As technology progresses, the concept of ‘smart cities’ remains a pervasive topic. At the ideal best, smart cities would be places where citizens work, travel and enjoy life, feeling safe and happy as they live to their full potential. Such an environment would blend the very best that technology has to offer to deliver integrated services encompassing everything from transport infrastructure, communications, energy, water supply, waste removal, healthcare, policing and social services, education, cultural enrichment, retail, international competitive business opportunity and commerce. Low cost IoT sensors built into everything to provide real-time monitoring of the physical domain. High capacity data links and data centres to manage and analyse all that information and facilitating services in the digital domain. Sounds easy, right? So what’s the catch?
Firstly, on a very practical level, smart cities will never be designed as greenfield sites and built from scratch. Instead, existing population centres will be developed and improved as an iterative process, requiring new technologies and services to integrate with legacy infrastructure while remaining as ‘futureproof’ as possible. This is challenging but not insurmountable; by harnessing open architecture and IoT-level connectedness we should at least be able to approach perfection and construct the near-ideal.
The much more formidable task is to do all this in a safe and secure way. The more connected things become, the greater the need for robust cyber security. How do you demonstrate to citizens that the security of all this infrastructure is infallible? That homes, hospitals, schools, transport networks and everything else will not be vulnerable to cyber attack that may have real and tragic outcomes to the lives of citizens? How do you reassure people that their digital identities and finances will remain secure and protected? With artificial intelligence and machine learning enabling many smart city services, there is a need to ensure the algorithms are free from bias and not introducing risk, safety or ethics issues into society. If your AI involved in, say, public safety has been trained on the typical responses of a narrow demographic, can we be sure in an emergency that automation will result in the best outcomes for everyone? Government and corporations will need to demonstrate transparency and accountability in how algorithms are trained and employed.
In a smart society, data is king – so how will personal data privacy concerns be managed? A balance will be needed between adequately anonymising the data while at the same time being able to extract the maximum usefulness from it. The closer society moves to a smart utopia, the greater the need for robust regulatory, compliance and governance measures.
With so much focus on the technical issues, there is an overarching need to keep all this technology working and the array of strategic suppliers delivering on their promises. At the most mundane level, who is going to be responsible for managing the increasingly complex contracts that will inevitably be needed between public service authorities and the ecosystem of hardware, technology and service suppliers? We need to ensure all contractual obligations, requirements, interdependencies and governance products are adequately controlled so that projects are delivered on time, on budget and, most importantly, achieve everything that they need to. Perhaps this last element is the easiest – this is our passion at Athensys.