The theory that underpins the smart city notion is relatively well established in Europe, with many cities, including Barcelona, taking significant steps towards realising the concept. However, in the UK both the public’s understanding of the concept and the political muscle needed to realise it is still relatively nascent.
One way of viewing a city is as if it were a huge manufacturing plant, laid out on a grand scale. The objective of doing so is to illustrate that, just as in a manufacturing plant you can utilise real time information showing resource constraints on a manufacturing capability, in a city you can also bring real time information into play.
In a manufacturing plant for example, it makes sense to make to order rather than producing stock to go into a warehouse. Similarly, in a city it is logical to allocate resources in accordance with demand, instead of via a rigid plan or schedule.
Transport is possibly the best example. Here, having a timetable provides a very clear equivalent to producing stock. With a timetable, there is no certainty that there will be passengers waiting at the station to fill the seats, or alternatively that there will be a sufficient number of seats for all passengers.
Similarly, if one simply manufactured product to a schedule instead of to meet specific orders, there would be no guarantee that there would be a customer to buy the end result. Conversely it would be impossible to be certain that you have enough products to fulfil an order.
The solution is an IT and communications infrastructure that monitors real time use of facilities and automatically apportions capacity to match usage. For instance, one might use social media to monitor people flow in a set environment and thus allocate public services accordingly.
In a sense, we have already done this in the UK when extreme circumstances call for extreme reactions. In 2011 the Police used social media to monitor the spread of the summer riots and subsequently to track participants and ultimately to prosecute them. Crucially though, the difference was that they did so manually, or by using relatively crude social media management tools.
The smart city approach would employ automated software tools to manage the data and provide an easily interpretable dashboard from which to read it. Using social media to manage traffic may well be an idea that is some way distant still. However, it is far from science fiction. The software tools exist to manage that quantity of big data and the bandwidth exists for it to flow through.
Real time traffic management is certainly not a distant concept. It is already being done in other parts of Europe by monitoring bandwidth use on mobile phone networks and allocating resources as a result. By identifying the number of calls and texts and the mobile web usage in a particular area, the likely demand for transport services there can be predicted.
Naturally, it is only part of the solution; if only because many public transport users are not also mobile phone users, particularly the elderly or very young children.
However, it is too easy to get caught up in a single easily understood concept such as traffic management. A more beneficial view would be to look at smart cities as centres of conurbation that use information and communication technologies to become more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources. This would result in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery, quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint.