How the Notion of ‘Smart Cities’ Has Changed

By Bas Boorsma

Bas Boorsma currently serves as Cisco’s Digitization leader in North Europe. In this role he orchestrates Cisco´s regional efforts that allow for the digitization of Cisco customer operations, partner operations and Cisco itself. Bas has a rich background as a City Digitization specialist. In that capacity he has managed a portfolio of smart city endeavors globally. Bas is the author of “A New Digital Deal” (September 2017).

Oct 26, 2017 | Economy, Society | 3 comments


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In my recent book “A New Digital Deal” the various building blocks for successful smart city strategies have been examined and articulated. Among the most important: the delivery models and the business architectures that accompany them.

The very notion of a “smart community”, what is constitutes, who or what is to deliver it and why – all of it has been subject to near constant change in the past fifteen years. At the heart of many definitions and endeavors has always been a technology proposition, for better or for worse. In the early 2000s, discussions, projects, pilots and thought-leadership focused on infrastructure. Broadband. High end connectivity and how that would impact (and change) the way we think of healthcare, mobility, retail or education. The second chapter was led by large technology companies and focused on solutions and solutions architectures, some of them closed and proprietary. The third chapter is focused on data. Big data, analytics, viewing the future of smart cities as a market of city data, powered by platforms.

With this third chapter having opened up, the smart city gives rise to ‘the City as a Service´. The maturing of the City as a Service concept may entail the death of the old Smart City concept with its heavy emphasis on upfront Capex investments and heavy infrastructure. Yet as the delivery models change, so do the business architectures underneath them.

Smart city propositions are moving from a hardware- and solution-driven market, to a software- and data platform-driven one, from an asset centric approach to a service centric one. Slowly but surely, community digitalization efforts are changing from having a simple transaction (say, between a municipality and a service provider) at the heart, to the smart city becoming a market place: the City as a Service is on the rise. The latter allows for the principle of ‘consumption economics’ to be introduced, with different societal stakeholders (including government and citizens) to consume ‘digital’ only as much as they need.

Platform dynamics have become common in various markets and domains. From taxi services (Uber) and apartments (Airbnb) to a medical doctor at your doorstep within the hour, platforms with their demand side economies of scale, ecosystem value creation and external resource orchestration dynamics are become common good. They may become the vehicle to drive smart cities to full maturity, powered by an ecosystem of city service providers, consumers and prosumers. However, we are not there yet. How the City as a Service evolves, when and with whom, will greatly depend on a number of questions and how communities address these. How virtually integrated should smart city business architectures and their delivery models be? Do we opt for private sector to own and manage top to bottom as in the old telco and cable company model, or do we stress the importance of keeping strategic assets within the public realm? Can a common, shared infrastructure be considered an effective foundation to ensure a free market of data and services evolves?

The analogy with an airport can be made: the airport serves as a shared platform for competing airlines, as opposed to each airline owning and operating its own airport. Broadband infrastructures, data, analytics capabilities, services, solutions, sensors: what level of vertical integration is deemed desirable by your community? What level of unbundling of these layers will help smart city free market dynamics to evolve and innovation to be continuous?

Take outdoor light poles for instance: these can be considered strategic assets in the streets of a city as they evolve to become the smart phone of the street, converging power, broadband, sensors, routers and more. Who owns that asset today and who should own it tomorrow?

Investors are increasingly interested in facilitating concession models financing the infrastructures of our day and age, including outdoor light pole led light retrofits, public wifi infrastructures and advanced street automation services, foregoing the need for cities to put the capex investment upfront. For cash strapped cities in dire need to reinvent themselves this may prove attractive, as much as it does for cities that really wish to procure smart city solutions as a service, much as one would procure electricity. The concession model can be a great way forward yet, here too, the earlier question applies: who owns the assets and how vertically integrated or unbundled should the various layers of all of these models be? How do we ensure a minimum of public control is retained over assets that are carry long term relevance and value to the community? And how can ´permanent innovation´ be baked into such longer term concession models?

Technological advances come fast, and long term concession models may be helped by ‘anti-embarrassment clauses’ that allow for regular technology refreshes and innovative input. Such constructs are already being proposed by investors acting in collaboration with service providers and technology companies. Beyond the quintessential vertically integrated telco model or the concession proposition, we may also want to put more thought into the creation of cooperatives and public private partnerships that help us to alternatives. We have made such choices before: think energy or broadband provisioning for instance. Think rural energy cooperatives emerging from the late New Deal programs to the ´broadband as a public platform and utility’ approaches adopted in the early 2000s in Europe, versus vertically integrated energy giants or the quintessential cable company. Similar choices are on our tables now and the stakes are high.

There is not one ideal choice, and no one size fits all. But the choice any community makes will have broad and long term consequences. If the choices of the past determined how we ended up organizing the energy and broadband markets for a generation or longer, the current choices may determine how we organize digitalized communities at large. Nothing could be more important. This framework of building blocks for successful community digitalization has been derived from the book ‘A New Digital Deal – Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities’, available on Amazon.

For more about the book: www.anewdigitaldeal.com

Discussion

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3 Comments

  1. Bas, wonderful blog. I look forward to reading the book. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of references to people, such as the creation, attraction and retention of talent; of inspiring and enabling innovation and creativity ecosystems for people to prosper in; of community-wide digital transformation including digital inclusion efforts for people who are disenfranchised, homeless or between jobs to share in the community prosperity; of environmental sustainability and resiliency, offering people hope about tomorrow; of opportunities for collaboration and “happiness”; and of government policies and practices to ensure that people are the focus at all times, not technology and data. Respecting citizens and enabling their roles in the evolution of the smart city should be one of the top goals we should aspire to. I know that you have that in the back of your mind as you write this, but it would be good to begin to see this expressed more and more in the media, books and in public presentations, especially by leaders such as yourself. As an urban planner, designer and economic developer, I have been advocating this approach for several decades now and am beginning to see the notion of the “smart city” changing slowly and incrementally, as you have indicated. I am hopeful that this incremental approach will ultimately evolve to represent a holistic approach to create the most livable and intelligent communities possible, everywhere. Thanks for your contribution. Excellent work.

    Reply
    • Dear John, i wholeheartedly agree with your plea. Good news is that much of what you advocate is a center piece of A New Digital Deal. Once you have read it, i am confident you have plenty to add. If you are open to that, i would like to include such input in future editions of the book.

      Reply
  2. Technology adoption @ a pace it is emerging is inevitable. Choice is limited to join the journey or been left out & try catching up.
    However, it may be critical to keep thinking, talking, and understand the impact of technology on human being.
    My recall goes till sometime back, we in India used to learn tables and people in western world used to do even simple compute with calculator.
    Today, mobile has shortened the human being’s attention span to around 10-15 minutes before people check their mobile for sms, whatsapp, email, app based inputs, …
    IoT is another technology emerging very fast and we are going to be surrounded by one or the other IoT censor/ device all the times all over, wherever we would be and doing whatsoever.
    Are we trying to understand the impact of such a scenario on himan being’s thinking, behavior, and the way people are expected to act?
    this shall help prepare people for such a world.
    There will always be 2-4 generations in action, and even GenY may face very different situations.
    It is all about always prepare ourselves for a unknown world and ‘unknown’ continues to be unknown.

    Reply

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