Technology Smart Cities In Depth

So, what exactly is a smart city? And why do marketers need to know?


By Stephen Lepitak | -

November 5, 2018 | 15 min read

A smart city revolution is underway. From Paris to Mexico City, Shenzhen to metropolises in Saudi Arabia and Estonia, cities in 2018 are rethinking their urban innovations. But what does this concept really mean, apart from free wifi, sensors to monitor air quality or autonomous vehicles? Aside from an agenda to push technology, what else do smart cities have in store? Is it about big data or about communities, or both? The Drum poses these questions to our industry folks.

Simon White, chief strategy officer, FCB West: We have to design smart cities so we can support a global population of 10 billion by 2050. The question is how. The design of smart cities often focuses on efficient movement and allocation of resources, such as traffic, waste, power and people. But once individuals are treated a resource to be moved about efficiently, we are in danger of dehumanizing citizens and overlooking their deeper human needs. Of course we need smart cities, but it’s about more than technology and efficiency. While the technology is new, people and their basic needs haven’t evolved for millions of years. We’re primates with a need for social connections, with hidden desires and drives, and our behavior is affected by our environment. A deep understanding of behavioral economics, psychology and human drives will help us create cities around their needs – and to not only see human beings as units to move efficiently.

Andreas Vogiatzakis, chief executive officer, Havas Media Group Malaysia: I made Kuala Lumpur my home a dozen years ago, and have watched this amazing city develop while maintaining its colors, its flavors and its attitude. And yet, as with every metropolis, it is furious and fast expanding, with all the challenges that implies: traffic, pollution, hunger, flooding and overpopulation, to mention a few.

Now close your eyes, and fast forward 20 years later. Imagine Kuala Lumpur with none of the above. An efficient city — well run, clean, elegant, with no delays, no pollution and no floods — and yet as vibrant as it is today with food, art, music and technology converging to make its citizens proud, a smart city that maintains its heritage and its history in a futuristic way.

By definition, a smart city is a municipality that uses information, data and technology to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare. And as our world has evolved to one where technology alters the fabric of our society for the better, smart cities, if governed right, provide a template for the future.

Leaving aside the advancements in lifestyle that IoT and fully connected devices can bring to our lives — such as planning our day ahead with no hassle, getting delivered only what we need to eat and consume for the day — smart cities promise new ways of living sustainably. Systems that dim unused streetlights, automobile engine stops, automatic water conservation, ‘fully connected’ restaurant kitchens for zero food wastage and an end to hunger in the streets, along with networks that offer unoccupied rooms and houses to folk who need shelter, IoT-enabled management of waste collection, could ensure high levels of health and low crime. In fostering sustainability, smart cities, will allow societies to successfully conquer the future.

Stéphane Maguet, head of innovation, We Are Social, France: Cities have always reflected our imaginations. The smart city is a mix of technology, media, data, community and culture. What we must recognize is that this ‘city of the future’ is already here; that it is being built before our eyes, at least in its first phase. And that collectively planning out our next steps will be one of the biggest concerns associated with these promised cities.

Often, visions of the smart city are techcentered, favoring structures, services and information to the detriment of humans. But this is not an inevitability. We will surely need to choose between serenity and security, or at least recognize the tension between these two models and properly find a balance between a smart city and a living city.

Citizens, business leaders and brands will have to understand this to act with relevance. Culture is the new strategy. It’s not easy to choose between a model that gives precedent to data flow and management, and a model that puts people and society at the heart of its concerns.

At this time of fake news, digital monitoring and the hegemony of tech firms, we must ensure that the city of the future does not resemble that Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. If technology and storytelling are linked more than ever, it will be up to creatives and artists to make sense of, and reinvent and the public spaces of tomorrow by prioritizing wellbeing and living together. We must design ethically, for humans and for culture.

Lawrence Weber, managing partner, Karmarama: My hope for the smart cities of the future is that they actually manage to be smart. Not just smart enough to tell you when a pothole needs fixing or if there is a parking space outside your flat, but intelligent enough to collect, analyze and connect data that promotes opportunity, openness and democracy for everyone who lives in them.

In building smart cities, we will be creating the most visible, complex and keenly felt implementations of artificial intelligence (AI). While it’s one thing to cede decision-making to your self-driving car, it’s quite another to have a black box making decisions about who can access services, buildings and information across an entire metropolis.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of what happens when you build unconscious bias into those black boxes, and heard the warnings from the likes of Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking about the potential dangers of AI. The problem with those warnings is that they feel too global and abstract for us to influence. The amazing thing about cities – even those the size of London – is that they are political units that have, and create, identity and things that people care about deeply.

Do they care enough about their cities to help create and work alongside those AIs, making sure they are created with ethics and checks and balances that the whole populace can interrogate? I believe and hope so.

Marie Stafford, European director, Innovation Group, JWT London: The advent of the smart city provides a rare opportunity to reshape our cities. Thanks to autonomous vehicles, space formerly devoted to traffic and parking may be re-purposed. So a truly smart city will still value good planning and design alongside technology. A smart city will design for its people and address their needs, whether by more affordable homes or providing shared spaces that facilitate better interaction, community and mental wellbeing.

Is the ‘sensorization’ of the city necessarily conducive to our wellbeing though? Do we want a future where our every move is tracked? A smart city would respect its citizens’ right to data privacy. It would ensure that people are in control of their own data, and leave plenty of room for serendipity, with ‘wild’ surveillance-free spaces where creativity and expression can thrive.

Ultimately, optimization, efficiency and cost-savings are all valuable goals, but they don’t feel very human. They won’t create the vibrant communities or the cultural capital that draws people to cities. We need to ensure that our smart cities are led by the human, not the machine; that they are designed from the bottom-up and driven by the needs and wants of their citizens, rather than top-down from consultancies and tech firms.

...And why do they need to know?

More than 55% of the world’s estimated 7.4 billion people live in cities. The growth of smart cities is about more than self-driving car trials and cleaner air – it represents an attempt to make urban spaces more exciting and interesting. As the smart cities of the future will produce streams of data, what opportunities will they open for marketers? How will brands interact with customers in 2020 and beyond? The Drum asks the experts.

Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief executive officer, The Beyond Collective: The next tech phase will be the cyborg phase, the full integration of tech into our bodies, making the phone and the watch redundant. These connected audiences will form the basis of the smart city, which I see as a carbon neutral, techenabled sharing economy that enables seamless living – we’ll use Apple Pay or its equivalents, with one mega ‘operating system’ for society.

This will impact both brands and society – a tech-enabled on-the-go NHS will be possible, and we’ll all have one ID that’s super-encrypted and protected. Governments will wonder whether they should nationalize the new tech infrastructure to maintain order.

The new brands that emerge will be those that understand this new audience-based economy and will exist through cottage industries scaled through a 4D printing economy. Brands that aren’t genuinely different, or innovating to stay different and useful while adding social value, will die.

With new data privacy regulations, starting with GDPR, there’s going to be a limit to what brands, products and services are able to achieve with personal data. Big companies with deep pockets will create smart algorithms, which use general data sets to optimize their engagements with their customers. But, with customers increasingly frustrated by separate log-ins and security walls, and suspicious of new startup companies abusing their data, they will welcome the renationalization of society and its systems through one over-arching OS.

Governments will take back control and official media spaces will become the primary means to engage audiences. But, as with Apple’s ‘1984’, rebels will always find a way.

Paul Davies, consumer marketing director, Microsoft: The rise of smart cities is very much upon us. This is due to the ubiquity of intelligent technologies (ie everything that can connect to a wireless connection), combined with wifi and superfast broadband everywhere. Plus, mass adoption of technology via screens and wifi connections means that they are embracing technology in every part of their lives, and there is no reason for cities to be any different. This cocktail creates amazing opportunities for brands, whether in the form of sensors detecting elevator malfunctions to pre-empt a breakdown; cities measuring air quality in real time, displaying it on wireless screens; car or bike share schemes run on apps which locate the nearest free car or bike to you; or even apps that can help visually impaired consumers navigate using beacon technologies which trigger audio directions to help them to move around and locate shops. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

Pradeep Kumar, global data officer, FCB: Smart cities can enable better quality of life, new efficiencies and sustainability. I see smart cities as focal points for the integration of technologies for the purpose of efficient mobility and healthcare, while retaining the social fabric. People living and working in smart cities not only consume data, they create data. Agile data platforms and real-time analytics can make a city more responsive and transparent. At the same time, data cannot be explained and used without an understanding of social context. Data can mobilize people and change things only when it is rich with social meaning. In this new world, technology merely provides infrastructure. It holds value only when it’s connected to people and communities.

Claire Mitchell, director, VaynerSmart: The challenges faced by future cities provide ample opportunities for brands to address real-world problems while improving customer experience, and by extension improving public perception. Brands already contribute to the optimization of urban environments while increasing visibility and enhancing reputation, from sponsorship of infrastructure projects, to data sharing and implementation of sensor-networks that monitor urban conditions.

CitiBank and Nike have stepped into cities like New York and Portland with app-based bike share programs designed to reduce congestion and emissions. In exchange, their logos have become a part of the urban fabric. Others share data to aid city planning efforts. Via, Lyft, Uber and others have pledged to “prioritize people over vehicles and lower emissions and encourage data sharing”, demonstrating responsibility to the communities in which they operate. Uber launched a public initiative to share trip data for several cities.

Brands can also offer physical space as infrastructure. Big Belly trash cans automate garbage collection and act as platform for IoT sensor networks while providing neighborhood wifi hotspots. Retail or coffee chains could to the same by offering space to air quality or foot traffic sensors outside of branch locations. As brands consider how they fit into smart cities, marketers should think not only about where to place ads, but what utility their brands provide so that they are seamlessly integrated into the solutions that answer the challenges of tomorrow’s urban landscape.

Rothin Bhattacharyya, global head of business transformation, growth markets, Philips Lighting: A smart city, by the nature of its scale, will call upon a multitude of stakeholders – the municipal body, technology consultants, multi-system integrators, and project management consultants – to realize a complex urban architecture. These leaders need to be able to communicate a single vision of the new city, rather than focusing on individual elements. A critical outcome of this outreach is to expand the understanding of a smart city among the community, transforming passive observers into active citizens. Given that the primary platform for smart cities is digital, IoT and big data are natural accompaniments. The combination of GPS, smartphones, sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID), APIs, platform hardware and software will generate a deluge of data with significant scope for participation, resulting in a feedback loop of creation.

Marketing will also undergo a fundamental change – brands will need to fulfill roles as ‘enablers’ rather than being mere ‘providers’. Creation of relevant content, anytime, anywhere will become the pivot around which marketing will need to revolve. And because consumer decisions will cease to be linear, marketing interventions will need to be ‘always on’.

However, a huge stream of public and personal data will necessitate the emergence of the ethical marketer more than ever before, as well as the need for stringent regulations to ensure data security.

Kate Howe, chief executive, Gyro UK If smart cities are where the future of urbanization is happening, they are also where new hubs of commerce, culture and information will emerge. As a result policymakers and business leaders are challenged with making the cities we live in more sustainable, connected and livable. Sustainability initiatives are vital and already numerous. New brands which have deeper relevance and meaning for consumers are and will continue to emerge. All this means new opportunities for agencies and marketers alike. It means we need to learn how to tell the sustainability stories of businesses and brands.

There are of course laudable examples of the marketing community telling great sustainability stories well – GE’s Ecomagination, Walmart’s sustainability commitments and of course IBM’s Smart Cities program. Some brands have also shown the way. For example, Colgate’s Super Bowl ad which encouraged people to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth or the ‘Bennison for Baby Care’ campaign that created a Baby Care Wear package to help keep children developing markets warm, clean and safe. Unique packaging was made from special soap paper which dissolves in water.

Just as our cities are rapidly growing and changing, the role of business is continually changing too. Smart cities are a catalyst for smart ideas, smart initiatives and, I believe, will create fantastic opportunities for smart business leaders.

I attended a fascinating lecture by former UN climate chief Christiana Figuere after the Paris Climate Agreement was signed. She believed that the only way to continue urbanization, which will soon account for 80% of the world’s population, is to “build cities for woman, man and child and not for car, bridge and buildings”.

She said: “We’ve been building cities thinking of transport and buildings not human beings. Instead of urban sprawl we need urban gardens. Cities in which we produce as much food as we are going to consume, in which we recycle as much water as we are using, certainly produce as much energy as we need, and more, so we can send it out to other areas.”

Smart marketers will have taken notes.

This feature first appeared in The Drum's June issue, which examined the future of smart cities.

Technology Smart Cities In Depth

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