Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
Janis Joplin

Part One: A Tale of Smart Cities

The phrase ‘smart city’ conjures up a vision of a Metropolis like urban jungle. A jungle that is made up of intelligent structures, buildings that know when we enter and leave, traffic that flows easily, and always available parking spaces. A place where the city knows what we want, before we want it, and gets it right every time. This utopian vision of a future is actually fast becoming a reality. The size of the smart city market is expected to be around $1.5 trillion by 2020. This is an opportunity that makes the most of emerging technologies and our needs for more efficient, cleaner, and better living environments.

But as this brave new world opens up opportunities for business, it also reveals vulnerabilities for the individuals within the smart city too, including their own personal privacy. The smart city is built not only on traditional bricks and mortar but on data too. These data are integral to both the intelligence behind the smart city and our own place in an increasingly digital world. Privacy is one of those things that once lost, is difficult to regain. Are our smart cities leaders taking care, not just to provide efficient, clean living, but to take care of our privacy too?

This is the first part of a series of two articles which looks at the past, present, and future of our smart city living and the privacy challenges it brings with it.

Driving the Smart City

When human beings moved away from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a more agrarian one, we opened up new ways of living. Hunter-gatherers have to move with the food. When we developed agriculture, the food moved with us – to a degree. When we learned how to grow our own food, and domesticate animals, we were able to create ‘settlements’. As time went on, these settlements became popular places to meet others, form bonds, bring up children and develop new technology. Those settlements allowed us to group together and feed ourselves on the fruits of our labor; clothe ourselves from newly discovered materials that were traded between settlements; allowed specialized roles to develop, such as the potter who created vessels to store spare food in, and beautiful goods to trade with other lands. Over time, our settlements have become increasingly complex and more densely populated. Great cities have been built and great cities have fallen. We find ourselves today in a world where the city-state is ever more important. A United Nations report into city living found that in 2016, 54.5% of us were living in cities and by 2030 60% will reside in urban areas. The report also found that cities are not only increasing in population density but in numbers too. By 2030 there will be 41 ‘megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants.

Alongside the growth in population and the migration, en masse, into urban areas, has been a morphological shift in our technology which reflects our modern living. In 1993 only 0.24% of the world had Internet access, in 2016, that figure was closer to 46%. This explosion in connectivity, coupled with affordable, fast, bandwidth, has, in turn, opened up markets for new technologies – giving designers new ideas, and encouraging investors to open their wallets. The resulting hyper-connectivity has given us the Internet of Things (IoT) with the resulting market for consumer and industrial Internet of Things devices increasing exponentially; the sensor market for IoT growing at a CAGR of 24% to 2022. Other technological advances in artificial intelligence, behavioral analytics, and the era of big data, are allowing us to explore new ways of using technology for everything from improved health, more efficient agricultural and industrial processes, and more accessible education.

As our cities grow, our need for resources and our production of waste also increases. The development of those megacities brings with it enormous challenges in sustainability.  To maintain our lifestyle and protect the planet, and in turn our own interests, we have to solve these issues and understand the roots of sustainability by designing and building cities that have this as a core remit. These technological advances will have to pull the modern city along with their coat tail to solve a number of key areas needed for the development of smarter living, including:

Mobility: Transportation is at the center of the sustainable city and at the heart of the intra and inter- city economies. It also creates pollution, costs energy, causes fatalities and injuries, and takes up land for to service the infrastructure of the transport system. In terms of smart city living it is both integral and costly. Sustainable transport covers everything from smart cars talking to toll roads to smart buses getting the workforce at their offices on time. Smart transport can improve and even save lives. The City of Columbus won a smart city challenge against 77 other cities because of an ethos:

“Transportation is not just about roads, transit and ride sharing. It’s about how people access opportunity. And how they live.” – Mayor Andrew J. Ginther

Energy: A robust and sustainable city demands robust, cost-effective, and sustainable energy. Energy is a complex issue – with technological, environmental, and humanistic considerations. Global use of clean energy, however, is still slower than hoped for, partly due to a resistant public according to the World Energy Council. Smart energy infrastructures are built to optimize energy use and incorporate more clean energy, balancing the environmental concerns of increasing energy needs. But the consumer needs to embrace this and smart cities are also about smart people. Tying in with the smarter transport initiatives, electric cars, although still at less than 1% of the global fleet, will grow with increasing investment in this area and with the needs of the smart city – the smart city will need to manage this need, not just the electricity itself, but the charging points and the time to charge.

Pollution: A study commissioned by The Lancet into the impact of pollution on our health estimated that 16% of all deaths worldwide could be attributed to pollution. As our cities become ever more congested, pollution of the air and water will become an even more serious issue for our health. Smart cities can utilize a mix of smart transport measures, energy efficiency, and smart sensors to help to improve urban pollution. The Chicago ‘Array of Things’ was one of the first hyperconnected sensor systems to monitor city-wide levels of pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide with a goal of feeding this information back into city-wide management measures.

Water:  This element has always been at the heart of a city. Without it, we simply couldn’t exist. In the smart city, we will need smart water that is clean, available, and cost-effective. Water is like energy in that its usage and flow must be understood to optimize it. In a smart city, serving multiple millions of individuals, water must always be freely available and clean. Smart water systems and smart water treatment plants will be able to analyze the usage patterns and use these data to predict future water needs. Water loss management and flood controls, in a world where climate change is making patterns of weather unpredictable, will be a serious challenge for the smart city. Water treatment plants will need to be upgraded to smart to manage the living expectations of smart city inhabitants. This will impact the water infrastructure of already existing cities, in much the same way that the Victorians revolutionized the British sewage system in the mid 19th century.

Buildings: A smart city demands smart buildings. As we start to connect up our municipal services and build more intelligent transport and water systems, the houses we live in and the buildings we work from, will need to act not just as conduits for, but as integrators of, the smart technologies that will inform our lifestyles. Smart buildings will connect to the smart grid, allow us to control our heating and lighting from a voice command, determine our dietary needs, and maintain a healthy environment.

Government: Underpinning the smart city is governance. A smart city demands smart governance. A smart city has baseline needs to operate, services such as verified online identity, free or affordable Internet access, and transparency of operation. The whole needs a governance model that works for all. A number of organizations, such as the interdisciplinary group at the University of Padova, are looking at the governance side of smart cities to make sure that a holistic view across connected services has frameworks in place.

The more we delve into why the smart city has come about, the more positive reasons we find for its existence. As well as those discussed above: such as pollution, mobility/transportation, energy, environment, water, waste, and open government, there are also other driving forces, including sustainable economic development, higher quality of life, public safety, health, education, and urban resilience to disasters. Ultimately, the goal of the smart city is sustainability of resources and a better way of living on an overcrowded planet. This is a challenge both technically and emotionally; both technology and social constraints have to be surfaced and dealt with. This convergence of human, data, and things, brings with is some serious and life-changing privacy implications for citizens of the smart city.

Technology, Data, and the Smart City

We have looked at the driving forces behind the smart city, but along with drivers, you need enablers. Enablement comes in the convergence of technology and humans.

Technology has advanced massively in the time it takes for someone to come of age. Although there were many advances in the mid-twentieth century in computing, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the type of computing, that the average person in the developed world is now used to, came on the scene. The concept and underlying protocols needed for modern Internet usage weren’t invented until 1989/1990 by Tim Berners Lee. Since then, human beings have taken the mantle and ran with it at pace. In the last 10 years, we have seen technology such as mobile and social media take root across global cultures. The iPhone was first launched in 2007 with the mobile market share eclipsing the humble desktop in 2016. According to PWC there are certain technologies, that are showing ‘megatrends’ and are described as ‘breakthrough technologies’. These technologies are infiltrating all aspects of our lives:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Augmented reality (AR)
  • Blockchain
  • Drones
  • Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Robots
  • Virtual reality (VR)

Each one of these will help in the enablement of the smart city – but none can do this without one important thing…


Data, Technology, and Us

According to IBM research, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day which has produced 90% of the data ever created in the last 2 years. This is startling stuff. But it makes sense when you see that it mirrors the development of new technologies that utilize sensors. According to Allied Market Research, the global sensor market will be worth around $241 billion by 2022. These are the sensors behind the smart grid, smart transport, smart water, and so on of the smart city. These sensors are the eyes and ears of the smart city. They are where the cyber meets the physical to create the cyber-physical world that we live in today and that the smart city will embrace.

Within our smart cities, the data that we generate is the lifeblood of the city. Every action we take will capture the essence of that action – data. When we wake up, our digital assistant lets us know we have an appointment in town. We take our car into the city, the data about our route captured and processed to ensure that we have a smooth journey and can find a parking space. Once in town, the coffee we buy on the way to the meeting is purchased with a swipe of a phone, the transaction happening automatically and our bank account updated accordingly. The office we work in will have optimized the temperature for the number of people in the office and the outside temperature. The tea we drink during the meeting is made using water treated in a smart treatment plant, and the Internet-enabled kettle used to boil the water will receive electricity from a smart grid. Having scanned our mobile-based digital identity to get in and out of the smart building, the circle of data from our day will be complete, as we climb into our Internet-enabled bed that evening.

Our every movement, the very air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink, will become part of an integrated set of data-based services that run off sensor-driven technologies. Our data and that of our environment feed the smart city.

The technologies which take advantage of these data include the sensors we mentioned above as part of an array of other integrated and distinct pieces such as mobile computing, IoT, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, wearables, and related technologies such as facial recognition/biometrics and consumer-facing digital identity.

The data we create and that our environment generates is the basis for smarter living. The problem arises when these data become the Achilles heel of the smart city and take on a life of their own.

Examples of Smart City Technology and Applications

The Edge – sustainable building:

A smart city needs smart buildings to live and work in. A smart building is built to connect up the dots of efficiency and all of the things that a building stands for. Smart buildings can be thought of as a microcosm of smart industry. They use sophisticated control units which manage and control all of the connected systems within the building – a sort of mother-ship for the smart living that lies within the building structure.

Smart buildings are going up all over the world, but a prime example is the office building of Deloitte Netherlands, known as ‘The Edge’. The Edge is all about energy efficiency. Its green credentials come in the form of solar panels and under-ground geothermal energy storage. Lightening systems are optimally efficient and rainwater is used for wastewater systems. But it is the array of sensors, collecting environmental data, that really make The Edge stand out. The data generated by these sensors allows the building management to be made extremely efficient, cutting down on unnecessary cleaning and maintenance.  Where the Edge steps across the privacy limits are when it starts to recognize patterns of our own behavior. Cars are associated with individuals in the parking lot, the whereabouts of an individual can be found at any time, even the coffee machine can potentially know who you are. Deloitte is actively protecting the personal data of their employees at The Edge, however, you can imagine the privacy implications if this was not the case.

Rotterdam Smart Grid:

Smart grids are popping up across the globe. As populations grow, and as industry and transport increase energy needs, the smart grid can optimize and make more efficient our energy usage. Siemens is working with the City of Rotterdam and Dutch energy providers to connect up 20,000 homes and companies to a smart grid by 2020. The system will use data generated by energy consumers to spot patterns and trends in energy usage that can then be used to moderate and optimize energy supply.

Singapore Smart Transit and ERP:

As our city populations soar in the coming decades, transport will become a serious headache without intelligent management. Singapore are using a mix of smart policy and smart transport to make sure their transport network continues to work optimally as their population density increases. Singapore Land Transport Authority is rolling out a new Electronic Road Pricing system (ERP) which will use smart-phone sized car-based units which will act to inform drivers of traffic conditions and road prices. On the plus side, the information can be used by the drivers to better plan their journeys across the congested city. The system uses satellite navigation technology and signal beacons to boost signals in places of weak coverage.  On the negative side, worries over soaring costs to drivers as payments are taken based on distance traveled, as well as concerns over the surveillance capacities of the ERP system, are being aired on social media.

Improving Smart Access:

Smart cities are blossoming because of a number of reasons as discussed earlier. One of these is the improvement in accessibility to super-fast broadband. In the smart city, this needs to be free in public access areas and highly affordable elsewhere.  Ensuring citizens have free wifi is driving adoption of smart city tech: cities across the world are offering free wifi within city centers and improving the reliability and bandwidth capability of these networks. New methodologies in networking such as Software Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) and home network partitioning are offering a solution to massive data generation and communication alongside super-fast connectivity.

The Long and Winding Road to Smart Privacy

Across the globe, governments are pushing for their cities to become smarter. Initiatives like the Smart City Challenge from the US Dept. of Transport are encouraging city-states to address urban issues like transport and pollution using modern technologies. These initiatives are built on a backbone of data, environmental concerns and general improvements to living standards. It is inevitable and important that human society moves towards a smarter way of living. We must use intelligent ways to improve our infrastructure and its dependencies. To do this we have to share our personal information, in all of the forms that take, from direct to indirect identifiers. At some point, in a not too distant future, it is likely our every moment, both awake and asleep, will be up for grabs in terms of the data it generates. The question is, does this matter and do we really care about that? In the next article, I’ll look more closely at those questions alongside some of the implications of a more open way of living.