As the Global Program Manager for Smart Cities at the Bosch Group, I have talked to many city representatives and stakeholders in recent years. I’m surprised to see that in many places, city planning is still done the way it was several decades ago: planners go to the traditional city departments such as urban planning, councils, economic development, etc., ask what their needs are and then evaluate them. Yet it’s pretty rare for these departments to actually address all the residents’ needs, not to mention those of other stakeholders such as industry, service companies, tourists, or commuters. What do these individual groups need, and what’s the best way to meet those needs? A detailed analysis that involves all of the interest groups affected – this is the first step toward cities of the future that people want to live and work in.
Active instead of reactive – the city dweller of the future
In many cities, people who live and work there have direct contact with the city administration already, whether it be by paying taxes electronically, sending feedback and complaints via an app, or getting information by calling a hotline. Yet the actions the city takes are very often one-directional and fail to offer a way for people to interact with it directly. Lots of recent documentaries show that people don’t feel as informed as they would like; this gives them the sense that the city is going over their heads when making decisions. There was a statement in one of these documentaries that I thought was quite telling: “What normally happens is, I look out the window, see something being built, and get annoyed that some person somewhere has decided to do this without my input.”
Getting people more closely involved, providing them with clearer information, and giving them ways to interact instills in them a sense of belonging. It also fosters understanding for sometimes unpleasant situations; for example, seemingly endless and nerve-fraying construction work on your commute. Now, whenever the city makes a decision, it can count on stronger acceptance among its people.
Take an example from a completely different area: today’s cities have a wide array of sensors that measure environmental data. Those measurements can then be used to inform residents about the volume of particulates at specific times of day. Other sensors monitor the flow of traffic to adjust the timing of traffic lights and keep traffic flowing freely.
In both of these cases, the use of sensors offers people hardly anything in the way of benefit. They don’t have a way to take action themselves. But linking these areas would create additional benefits. You could, say, inform people about alternative modes of transportation (bus, train, e-bike, etc.) when there is a smog warning or heavy traffic. Everyone can then decide for themselves if they want to use these alternatives or not. This means they have the opportunity to actively participate in what happens in the city (the traffic or dust pollution). Both sides benefit: people get where they’re going faster, and the city can report better environmental values or traffic density. You could also apply connectivity to the parking situation. If too many parking spaces in the city have already filled up, you could suggest that people take alternative routes with public transit. People decide for themselves how to “use” the city and move about within it. Using the city more intelligently also makes them more responsible for how they do so.
One example that perhaps does not affect people directly is the issue of tourism in cities. When the weather’s bad, they all head for the museum – this has been shown to be the case in the UK. If you get tourists to use an app that lists the city’s highlights, then some of them can be directed to a different museum, or given a recommendation to first eat something and then go to the museum. You could even offer rewards for people who act on these recommendations, such as a discount at a particular restaurant. Of course you could also draw this out to manage an even longer sequence of events: e.g. first lunch, then visit the museum, then coffee …. That way, you could also involve local restaurants and cafés. Tourists benefit by avoiding the crowds at the museum and getting a meal for less money. The city benefits because the museum remains a popular attraction, the stores are happy (and some of the revenue goes to the city), and the tourists are happy too. Bosch is currently exploring this angle in a project with the city of York in the UK: I would call it “combining the urge to play with urban planning”. In this two-year project, we will be looking to see if it’s possible to change tourists’ behavior by creating a game that has them use the city more intelligently. The idea is to avoid bottlenecks and crowds before they even occur. Tourists don’t become a burden, but instead are endowed with new value.
What I’ve outlined here so far has little to do with the city’s administrative areas themselves. Instead, it’s the data of the city that’s needed as a central source of intelligence. But who can provide the necessary connectivity?
How industry can play its part
Many countries such as the U.S., the U.K., or Germany are currently undergoing a transition from being focused on technology to being focused on services. That of course also affects industry. It’s no longer just physical machines or things that are being sold; instead, these are more and more being offered in conjunction with a service. I’d like to give you an example of a typical Bosch product that demonstrates how the Bosch Group is moving from a product to a service focus. Our industrial tightening tool comes with a matching software solution that allows you to track the quality of vehicle production in near-real time. Another example where sometimes only the service is being sold, this time from the travel sector, is Airbnb. What does this mean for the long term? Well, in the future, people will no longer primarily buy products, but services. When my children grow up, they will most likely not buy cars, but mobility.
Lots of companies have been working hand in hand with cities for a long time now, for instance in spatial planning, promotion of economic development, or in tourism. As a result, both sides are familiar with each other’s structures and know whom to speak to about what. For these companies, the smart city is more of an evolution. For others, collaborating on the smart city will be more of a revolution that forces them to change their mindsets and adopt new approaches and methods.
I’d like to highlight one group in the corporate landscape for which smart city initiatives hold as much challenge as they do promise: system integrators. These are usually local companies that are responsible for integrating solutions into the city. To take another Bosch example, we don’t sell our camera technology to cities directly, but we sell it to companies that take care of installing and integrating it into the city’s network systems, as well as developing solutions on top of that. Now that systems are becoming more complex via the integration of multiple systems into one solution (e.g. cameras with street lighting and sensors), single system integrators often don’t have the know-how for the complete system and rely on us to provide support. Connectivity adds multiple layers to cooperative relationships.
Reality check: what are today’s companies looking for? Working with the city isn’t particularly profitable. But if industry deliberately decides to “pre-invest” in a city, then companies can be part of lucrative business models over the long term. So how can companies get involved in the city of the future?
Innovative business models give rise to new kinds of collaboration
One approach companies can take here is technological. Its basis can be a platform that connects the “users” of a city (e.g. residents, visitors, industry, service providers, commuters) with other elements of the city: things (vehicles, charging infrastructure, traffic lights, particulate matter sensors), infrastructure (public transportation, parking spaces, attractions, etc.), and services (restaurants, cafes).
But this is still just the technological angle. It’s actually much more important to have functioning business models and determine how these can be tailored to the needs of each city. Let’s turn to the U.S. for a good example of successful cooperation between city and industry:
Imagine a city that has to cut costs. However, its empty coffers are making it difficult to invest in modern, more efficient infrastructure. In the U.S., a model is being tested in which entire city districts are allotted to property developers. These property developers renovate or construct these districts according to criteria defined by the city, such as “economical”, “intelligent”, “safe”. The city gets new and attractive districts for people to live and work in, while the property developers get the opportunity to incorporate various business models. One of these might be security services in residential neighborhoods. These often include security companies that work to keep the area safe. Additional services can be added such as a “follow-me home” function: when you leave a friend’s home or your workplace, the security company can track you to make sure you get home OK. If it receives an alert, the company dispatches a security team that will come to your rescue. The property developer is to the city what a supplier was to traditional manufacturing; here, the developer makes the city more attractive by providing the latest technology and services. This might sound odd to you, but I guess the message here is that due to lack of money and resources, cities are now outsourcing elements they would usually do themselves. This is the reality we have to face.
But it doesn’t all have to happen at once! Just the opposite, in fact. Plenty of cities start off with slow, small steps. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.