TECH | Jun 8, 2017

Smart City: When data culture impacts on 6 dimensions

Vision, organisation, economy, society, technology and communication: key dimensions in the development of an effective Smart City process.

The latest research  from the Digital Transformation Institute  (DTI) speaks clearly: in order to develop effective Smart City projects, we must stop making the same mistakes and learn how to work to anticipate factors that have the potential to fail. Undoubtedly, analysing the best practices of other cities is a useful exercise, if for nothing other than helping us understand the results achieved in other contexts and the goals that can be pursued, but how much do the characteristics of this context influence project implementation procedures? How do the risk coefficients actually change in the evolution of a Smart City, depending on what the city is and who are its resident citizens?

The curators of the research entitled  “Smart city, what will its impact be on cities of the future?”, conducted by DTI in collaboration with Cisco Italia, have worked with experts from various fields specifically to identify the possible elements that could lead to the failure of a Smart city project; i.e. those critical issues that, if properly identified and shared, enable mistakes to be anticipated and effective responses developed.

From this perspective, it emerges how the intelligent use of Open Data can support the city to plan and develop new services. The research has in fact identified the six key dimensions that are critical elements in developing an effective Smart City process: vision, organisation, economy, society, technology and communication; in order to subsequently identify a list of elements that are potential reasons for the failure of a Smart City project. It also offers cities a simple self-diagnosis tool, in the form of a questionnaire (transformation into an App is ongoing), which allows a particular situation to be analysed with respect to each of these risk factors, including which areas should receive greater attention.

According to the survey, the Smart Cities of the near future will be smarter and more sentient because they will have the ability to tune in to Big Data in real time and therefore react promptly. They will also be more open, more able to share, offer increased dialogue and participation because they will be able to interact proactively with active citizens, enabled to understand the value of the data and, thanks to this, to better read the reality and context in which they live. A Smart City with a new “inter-scalar”  vision, because, thanks to Open Data, it acts simultaneously on the micro and the macro, producing effects at both a neighbourhood and metropolitan level, thus daily improving the life every single citizen.

The ideal Smart City is, in fact, that which best adapts to the quality of its  social structure  and its urban territory. However, understanding a territory and those who live there passes through a process that collects, organises, publicises, compares and opens up all data and information about the urban context. In addition the quality and success of those who run a Smart City should also be measured by the degree of involvement they are able to achieve. City Digital Transformation processes therefore require a decisive and robust paradigm shift with regard to the past, thus placing citizens at the centre with the administration at their service, with particular focus on simple and easily usable services. It is not just about publishing certain bits of information in Open Data mode, more or less in line with legal constraints, but rather adopting a new paradigm that enables stakeholders in the area to be involved (citizens, businesses, etc.) right from the stage of defining choices in a participatory logic, also considering the recent trends in the sharing and circular economy. This new paradigm can only be introduced by creating new relational platforms that over time will integrate the administration streams of the public administration’s relationships with citizens, open and natively predisposed for integration with application streams right across the PA.

What about transparency? A city that takes account of its operation practices accountability, makes data accessible and understandable by everyone, implementing an active citizen participation mechanism that transforms people into Smart Citizens. It is a PA able to operate in an  organisational  and  effective, economic  dimension by exercising horizontal leadership, governing with an ideation-processing and operative/executive/management continuity, enhancing the interaction and integration of public and private investment, making the community a co-protagonist.

It should be remembered that the effectiveness, scalability, and success of a Smart City strategy inevitably depends on three main technological elements. First of all,  networking communication infrastructures, secure, high-reliability, capillary and capable of being virtualised, in service of the city, open spaces, public and private buildings for access to applications, aggregation and correlation of data, monitoring and remote control of sensors and actuators. Also by means of data-centre infrastructures  for hosting central server applications and for data collection, storage and analysis. Finally, using application platforms, subdivided between central aggregation, correlation, command and control components and specialised components associated with each specific service or subsystem. For all these elements, the most crucial prerequisite is interoperability, which is all too often just theoretical. Interoperability needs to be explored in the perspective of reuse so that the services created can be interrogated and used by third parties. Making the technology interoperable would allow the creation of databases containing infinite information about the territory and living habits of citizens, and the challenge of analysing and interpreting the collected data should be fully grasped in order to receive the information necessary to support decisions.

The Smart City development process, however, must ultimately have as its goal presiding over the places, times and forms of dialogue between all the individuals involved; cultural mediation with respect to the innovations that are introduced; attention to the difficulties and the defensive closures that may have emerged; promotion of the individual’s responsibility to the community, in terms of specific contribution that can lead to improving the quality of urban life; and finally, the affirmation of a clear and consistent vision of the phase and objectives, the costs and benefits of the transformation pathway that is launched. A  communicative dimension  to which the overall strategic task is entrusted: to work with full awareness of the extraordinary usefulness of the data in the digital transformation processes in which everyone is involved (citizens, administrators and city management) since there may well be technology in a city that is very smart, but there is no Smart City without informed use of the technology.

The six key dimensions in the development of an effective Smart City process

Vision: intelligent, human and cross-cutting city – To activate a smart city project, warn the report curators, “it is essential to have a clear understanding of the intelligent city model that is most capable of positively transforming the community via digital methods: a model that is economically sustainable from both a social and cultural point of view in that it is based on dialogue with the needs of citizens and the shared feeling of the community. A Smart City that is above all “human”.

Organisation: an interconnection between leadership, vision, strategies, networking and participation – The organisational dimension, the experts explain, consists of many factors, including the capacity to involve the territory, to listen to and manage the needs of all stakeholders involved in the process and the planning of the interventions to be carried out. This means as is explained in the report, “the firm guidance of a participatory network”.

Economy: stability for public-private integration – A city that wants to grow and launch mature projects within a smart city environment, and not individual experiments, as the report explains; “needs to have a budget dedicated to the innovation initiatives, albeit limited: its existence is decisive as an indicator of a cultural choice”. Another factor to consider is “the ability to integrate and interact with public and private investments: to understand the necessary sources of financing, to share them properly, but also (where the PA cannot come up with a traditional investment), to know how to create conditions that enable projects in a concrete manner and can guarantee private investors stability over the long term, even in the event of a change of administration.”

Society: resilient, collaborative, and “open source” communities – The citizens’ awareness of how their city works, what features it has from an economic and social point of view, can make a difference. In this sense, “the ability to collect data and make it accessible and usable by citizens is crucial”; it is not enough to create open-data platforms, “they must be a starting point for getting the participatory involvement of the community right from the initial phases of the project”.

Technology: city infrastructures and platforms – The theme of collaborative platforms based on information-sharing introduces the technological aspect of smart city projects. According to the report there are three main technological factors “that determine effectiveness, scalability and success: to have secure, reliable, capillary, network communication infrastructures capable of being virtualised and that enable access to digital services, data aggregation, monitoring and control; provide infrastructures for hosting central applications and for collecting, storing, and analysing data; to build application platforms, both for central management and for individual systems and services.”

Communication: dialogue and engagement for a human city – Creating a smart city, as stated in the report, does not simply mean “introducing innovative technologies to an urban centre” but “having the objective of responding in a new way to emerging questions that are also new: assistance, security, quality of life, participation, innovation”. Having the tools to coordinate the dialogue between all stakeholders involved, using cultural mediation that is “capable of dealing with difficulties and closures, giving people responsibility, clearly and consistently sharing the phases and objectives of the project is crucial.” The problem, the experts explain, is that projects fail to convey the knowledge and awareness of how to use the services made available.

The elements that can lead to the collapse of a city’s smart ambitions

First of all,  the lack of long-term,  all-round vision that involves all stakeholders in the territory: the PA, businesses and citizens. Lacking this requirement, without a continuous exchange between public and private stakeholders and without the ultimate goal of placing humans at the centre of this project, the development of a truly “intelligent” city is absolutely inconceivable. Perhaps we would create a futuristic, technological city, but there would be an extremely high risk of having created a cathedral in the desert completely disconnected from the territorial, social and economic reality that characterises it.

The absence of a budget dedicated  to technological initiatives can also prove to be counterproductive.  On one hand, the continuous search for funding to implement any digital project whatsoever is often complicated for administrations. On the other hand, this void demonstrates the absence of a cultural inclination towards the implementation of innovative projects. If a local administration thinks it does not need a specific budget to pursue and implement its digital transformation, then perhaps it is not really ready to face the challenges it faces in this regard.

Another extremely delicate point is the  involvement of the entire community and the entire urban territory in the innovation process. If man and citizen must be at the centre of the smart city, they need the tools to fully exploit their potential. This implies the need to ensure the acquisition of those digital skills necessary to enjoy the benefits of an “intelligent” city, but also a decisive change of course that puts the PA in the actual service of the citizen. As far as the territory is concerned, this must be understood not only in a geographical but also a social and economic sense. In this respect, a smart city cannot neglect the need to be scalable, or to have the ability to roll-out its effects on a macro level as well as on urban microcosms like individual neighbourhoods.

Before thinking of adopting all those technologies that are useful and necessary to transform a conventional city into an “intelligent” city, administrators have to reflect on what are the elements that could invalidate all their efforts.

  • Are we ready to make our urban area a smart city?
  • Is the population ready?
  • And businesses?
  • Are private interests ready to support digital transformation?
  • Does the local administration have a wide-ranging project based on solid economic conditions and concrete initiatives?

Responding to all of these questions is a categorical imperative; on the one hand, to deal with the digital transformation in an organic and reasonable fashion; on the other hand, to avoid the smart city developing as all but an ideal city, futuristic maybe, but not at all “intelligent”.

Stefania Farsagli