How will smart cities empower residents?

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A new vision for smart cities is emerging. The concept is based not on monitoring or services as in previous iterations, but instead, to empower the people who live there by improving wellbeing and making the link between the citizen and local government more positive.

This approach found its roots in the pandemic, altering what we value in a city. In the past, the density and connectivity of urban areas were the keys to economic strength. During the pandemic, those same traits became the very weakness that put citizens at risk from the virus. Citizens experienced varying levels of isolation, and as a result, community sharing and engagement have become a priority.

In addition, people have become more concerned and vocal about environmental, sustainability, equality and social matters. This has placed a spotlight on companies, institutions and governments that are not acting in accordance with the current values that citizens hold to heart.

Running in parallel to people’s changing demands and expectations, new technologies enable them to create previously unimaginable solutions. Together, these two forces allow new ways of delivering services and governing cities that not only improve lives but also make it possible to focus on the personal connections that make city life vibrant and full of purpose.

Saving the world, one city at a time

With urbanisation, industrialisation, and consumption growth, environmental pressures are multiplying. Energy-dependent smart cities may seem at odds with our climate crisis, but actually, their guiding principles are to minimise resource use, eliminate waste, and reduce overall costs.

For example, in Sweden, a new type of waste management system uses high-pressure tubes underground to transport waste to a single collection site, requiring less space and fewer refuse trucks on the road. An optical sensor and weighing scales allow individual processing of waste, which is instantly fed back to residents via mobile to show them how much waste they’re creating.

The authorities in Beijing reduced deadly airborne pollutants by roughly 20% within less than a year by harnessing big data through a platform that detects air pollution hotspots and sends information via an app to enforcement officers – traffic and construction is then regulated accordingly. Poor air quality results in over 1 million deaths across China each year, but since these regulations came into force, cities in and around Beijing have seen a drop in the number of deaths due to cardio and respiratory diseases.

Finding value in the everyday

The nature of work has already evolved significantly as most Brits continue to work remotely post-pandemic. The adoption of AI and increased use of automation will continue to reshape the workforce, releasing employees to focus on more valuable and satisfying work.

Additionally, data-driven formal education and online retraining will enhance a city’s pool of skills, providing a cost-effective solution in the context of rising employment and productivity gains for firms and the economy as a whole.

As a result of easier access to markets and lower entry barriers combined with the development of new business models that are digitally dependent and more flexible than traditional ones, connectivity will ultimately contribute to a more entrepreneurial climate.

Building social connectedness into the fabric of the city

With a large proportion of Brits working from home, this has come with the assumption that smart city technologies simply make it easier for us to work and live remotely, whilst also being responsible for making people more isolated. But actually, they have a significant role to play in building communities.

Community is hard to quantify, but MGI surveyed urban residents to determine if digital channels for communicating with local officials as well as digital platforms that facilitate real-world interactions (such as Meetup and Nextdoor) can have an impact. It established that these applications could nearly double the share of residents who feel connected to the local community and almost treble the share who feel connected to local government.

Establishing channels for two-way communication between public and local agencies could make city governments more responsive. Many city agencies maintain an active presence on social networks, and others have developed interactive citizen apps. These channels are used to report concerns, collect data, and weigh-in on planning issues. Paris, for example, has implemented a participatory budget, inviting anyone to post project ideas and hold online votes to decide which ones merit funding.

Clearly, smart city programmes around the world are already delivering benefits. So, why isn’t every city already ‘smart’? Some challenges persist. To achieve a people-first smart city, cities must take a hard look at their digital plumbing. This will require designing digital services consistently and around residents’ needs, joining up data, public services and partners, and crucially, expanding digital infrastructure.

Future smart city applications will generate greater demand for density of full fibre – a requirement that demands serious investment in infrastructure. Currently, only 33% (9.6 million homes) homes have access to full fibre broadband, but it is absolutely necessary for driving these innovations and more. Full fibre is regarded as the best available technology in terms of consistent gigabit speeds, cost to maintain, and it has no longer term foreseeable capacity constraints. On average, cities with denser fibre penetration run over 35% more smart city applications.

There is an eagerness among policymakers, technologists, and urbanists alike to seize this moment to “build back better” and re-imagine cities that are more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable. Our cities have the potential to respond to our needs but also alter urban life in more profound and personal ways as well. Powered with full fibre and combined with a willingness to break with conventional ways of doing things, and a relentless commitment to meeting the needs of residents, we can shape the future of the cities – and the world – we call home.

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Mikael Sandberg

Mikael Sandberg is co-founder and Executive Chairman at VX Fiber. He is a serial entrepreneur in the telecom and broadband industry. Previously Mikael co-founded and managed two major broadband companies in Sweden.

VX Fiber is a Swedish technology company – a digital infrastructure specialist, with more than 20 years’ experience building and operating full fibre FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) open access networks globally.

VX Fiber’s mission is to create value in the community in which we live and work, to help individuals, businesses and the community as a whole to gain their digital freedom.