Talking Smart Cities with Digital Hampshire Speaker Chris Cooper

To whet your appetite ready for our next Digital Hampshire networking and knowledge-sharing event later this month, we’ve spoken to the first of our speakers, Chris Cooper, about his expertise in the development of smart cities.

Chris is the co-founder and director of smart city innovators KnowNow Information, and will be speaking about personal data, smart cities and consent at our event on the 24th of February, as well as introducing a new, data-throttling app which his company have created.

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1)     For those unfamiliar with the concept, how would you describe a smart city?

“A smart city is one that uses technology to drive improved outcomes for society, such as improved health or a lower carbon footprint. Smart Cities are sustainable and use interconnected technology to deliver these better outcomes. Crucially, they use data and new innovations to change how a city operates.

A smart city will necessarily rely on open data, with both who uses it and how it’s used being carefully governed. Smart cities are built around collaboration and efficiency, but still allow competition from commercial agents & operators. Importantly, as smart cities rely on using our personal data, the outcomes they generate should work for us. What’s more, this use of personal data needs to be balanced with our consent to providing it.

The British Standards Institution’s Smart Cities Overview is a great place to look for a little further reading on the fundamentals.”

2)     In which areas do you see smart city technologies as making the biggest difference?

 

“Whilst we like to organise things into ‘sectors & silos’, life really isn’t that simple. Because of this, it’s more important to take a holistic approach to smart cities, looking at how we can create better life outcomes, rather than tackling one problem at a time. There are many examples of how improvements in one area can positively impact others.

As an example, a city may have traffic congestion, obesity and pollution problems simultaneously. A smart outcome to these three problems could be to create cycle highways and promote walking. We’d be solving a transport, health and environmental problem all at once. That’s the sort of outcomes-focused solution that smart cities are all about. Note as well, this may not be all about using new technology, but about changing how we live in our cities.

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Going back to the question, I’d say the areas where smart technologies could improve a city most would be health, transport and resource management, with areas such as smart utilities promising to make a big difference in the coming years.

One underlying trend that is starting to gain momentum is a focus on sharing and adopting a ‘circular economy’ approach, whereby we look to get the best possible value and utility from every resource available to us. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in particular are working with business on this concept of a circular economy, aiming to use its principles to create a more restorative and regenerative society.”

3)     Can you give some examples of how sensors could be deployed within a smart city?

“One of the most promising applications of sensors in a smart city could be achieved through their incorporation in streetlights. They can be powered by the same electricity as the light itself, and could pick up everything from pollution and environmental factors, to traffic congestion, noise and crowding. They’ll also be high up so tricky to steal, and the infrastructure’s already there to put them all across the country.

Through these smart streetlights we could gather rich data, then analyse it to create smart outcomes. One example could be monitoring congestion and studying how raised levels of asthma occur as a result. Findings like this could deter certain at-risk travelers from using that route. Once smart cities give us a better idea of these sorts of problems, we will be able to create smart solutions to counter them.

streetlights-on-road

We could also deploy sensors throughout our homes. These could show us where we’re wasting electricity, gas or water, and eventually enable us to share our excess resources within our communities, meaning a smarter outcome for everyone.

The key here is openness, we need to reconsider our concept of ownership, for the sake of greater outcomes for society as a whole. The sharing of things like gas, electricity and water with the use of smart technologies could mean that we waste far less as a society, and end up saving a lot of money. Whilst the outcome is environmental, the fact is that there are cold, hard economic reasons to take these actions too.”

4)     What “big data” challenges and opportunities are created by smart cities?

“In my view, the biggest opportunity comes from the fact that there is already a huge amount of data being monitored all around us, in everything from our smartphones and laptops, to our transport systems. The challenge is working out how we use this data to drive smart outcomes.

Innovative companies like Uber and Airbnb are already driving changes in how we see our cities, and contributing to an efficient, smarter society. Uber has revolutionised how we see transport, whilst Airbnb is showing how one person’s wasted space could mean a roof over someone else’s head. This sort of disruptive thinking, centered on sharing is exactly what we need to drive our smart cities.

city-at-night

One of the biggest opportunities which smart technologies present is in allowing us to create pro-active, predictive policies, rather than tackling issues once they are already facing us. In order for this to be possible, we have to have the conversation as a society about who actually owns all of this data around us, and how we consent to them using it. I’d argue that this information should really be in the government’s hands, but they may not have the capacity to deal with it. In this sense, the real challenge is working out as a society where our data should go, and understanding how its use will benefit us.”

5)     How viable are smart cities at present? Would you describe many cities today as ‘smart’ or do we have a long way to go?

“Whilst a lot of our cities have some characteristics of a smart city, most fail at one or more of the essential elements. As an example, few of our cities are truly open, truly sustainable or genuinely environmentally friendly. What’s more, most of our smart city initiatives at present are supported by grants and subsidies, as well as being implemented at a small, project level.

In the future, our smart cities will be viewed more holistically, and led by demand rather than by available suppliers as they currently are. As data and its ownership become more open, many more innovators will emerge, and our smart cities will grow exponentially.

Bristol is a good example of a city taking steps towards becoming smart. The council is making use of a super-fast fibre broadband network and high-tech sensors to generate information about everything from pollution and traffic to self-driving cars. The data generated is being collated from a lot of different data sources, and will enable those in government to base their future innovations on a wealth of rich information.”

6)     What are the biggest obstacles to face when creating truly interconnected cities?

“I’d say the biggest obstacle is the initial cost of making our cities smarter. There isn’t currently the political will to make a step change, and people are often put off by that first investment. The irony is that these cities will actually save us exponentially more in the long-term through the efficiencies they generate and decisions they enable.

Smart cities will also make nicer places to live; they will be greener, run smoother and be more inter-connected. These sort of environments will drive investment and business outcomes for cities. It will be so profitable that I’d say that in 50 years’ time, organisations that don’t embrace this circular economy model simply won’t be able to compete with those that do.”

city-night-lights

 

7)     How much of people’s personal data do you think is needed in order for a smart city to operate efficiently?

“In order to run effectively, a smart city must necessarily use people’s personal information. The more data that is generated, the smarter a city will be.

At the moment, it feels like we give up our data for very little. We don’t see the benefits that emerge from it being shared, and often wonder how exactly it’s used. If we saw it as an exchange – that we give up our data for something feasible – I believe that we’d be happier to buy into the sharing of it.

One thing that will affect this is a new data law which will soon be implemented from the EU, affecting everyone living in Europe. This will essentially give people the chance to understand exactly what they consent to, as well as to restrict any data use which they don’t consent to.

This is where our new innovation called KnowNow Trust comes in. It will allow users to understand and control exactly where their data will be used, essentially putting it back in their hands. By empowering people with the knowledge of what they consent to and how it could be used to help them and their cities, I believe that people will better understand the balance between what they give, and what they get from sharing their data.”

To learn more about smart cities and KnowNow Trust from Chris Cooper, as well as hearing Senior UX Designer Ross Chapman’s 10 Top User Experience Design Hacks, come along to the Winchester Guildhall for Digital Hampshire on the 24th of February at 6pm. There’ll also be an informal talk from former Apple international product manager Gordon Clyne, and plenty of time to network with local professionals.

Tickets are going fast, so click here to register now!

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