What have Smart Cities done for us?

By Eric Collins

Cities have been – to a degree – smart for centuries. The Romans achieved reliable water flow into their cities using aqueducts. Two millennia later, as cities grew phenomenally, the electrical grid helped mitigate seemingly insurmountable pollution problems. And now contemporary cities promise to increase efficiency and quality of life. Infrastructure will be managed more efficiently by leveraging real-time bi-directional flows of big data. City Business Magazine editor, Eric Collins, takes a highly selective, historical view of how the Smart City developed, and how it is being redefined in the contemporary era.

"What have the Romans ever done for us?" John Cleese, centre, as Reg in The Life of Brian
© Photos 12/Alamy

"What have the Romans ever done for us?" This is the question famously asked in the Monty Python comedy, The Life of Brian (1979). In the film, Reg, the leader of the People's Front of Judea, is trying to stir up a revolt against the Roman occupation. Unfortunately for Reg, his supporters come up with quite a lot of good answers: They remember that the Romans have built sewers, aqueducts, roads, and so on. In the end, Reg tries to regain the initiative:

Reg: All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order...what have the Romans done for us?

Xerxes: Brought peace!

Reg:(very angry, he's not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh... Peace, yes... shut up!1

So, since ancient times city authorities have – up to a point – been smart in building infrastructure. The Romans built aqueducts to bring water into their cities, but they didn't bother to monitor or control the flow. The excess water was simply used to flush out the sewers. Now, the 21st century city is opening up new possibilities for managing that infrastructure.

So what can Smart Cities do for us? The story begins with data.

" Social inequality moved wealthy philanthropists to action "

Who owns the data?

Historically, data has belonged to governments, and headcount was the first concern. The ancient Egyptians conducted censuses, as did the early Chinese dynasties. In China's first known nationwide census taken in the Han Dynasty (2 AD), the population was registered very precisely as having 57,671,400 individuals in 12,366,470 households. 2Some one thousand years later, after invading England in 1066, the Normans compiled the Doomsday Book, an inventory of all the people, land and property in their new domain. It was, after all, important for the new conquerors to find out who they were going to tax.

In the last two hundred years, wealth and inheritance data has been recorded in countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and the United States, and is the basis for the recent work on income inequality by French economist Thomas Piketty. 3Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, problems caused by social inequality were so great that wealthy philanthropists were moved to action.

Liverpool ship owner Charles Booth felt that contemporary analysis underestimated the problem. His database revealed that 35% of the population lived in abject poverty, and he drew detailed maps of London to show exactly where the problem populations (including "the vicious, semi-criminal") were located. Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London, first published in 1889, is one of the founding texts of British sociology, and draws on both quantitative and qualitative methods. He used the work to argue for "limited socialism" such as the introduction of Old Age Pensions. These kinds of privately collected datasets prefigure the current era, where ownership of data is increasingly shared between public and private sectors.

Spectacular infrastructure from ancient times, but how smart was it? Pont du Gard, part of a Roman aqueduct in Southern France built midway through the 1st century AD
© Kavram/Shutterstock.com

Liverpool ship owner Charles Booth felt that contemporary analysis underestimated the problem. His database revealed that 35% of the population lived in abject poverty, and he drew detailed maps of London to show exactly where the problem populations (including "the vicious, semi-criminal") were located. Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London, first published in 1889, is one of the founding texts of British sociology, and draws on both quantitative and qualitative methods.4 He used the work to argue for "limited socialism" such as the introduction of Old Age Pensions. These kinds of privately collected datasets prefigure the current era, where ownership of data is increasingly shared between public and private sectors.

Part of Charles Booth's map of London, 1889. The red areas are "well-to-do"; the black areas are "Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal". Booth popularised the idea of a poverty line
Photo courtesy of Sabiha Ahmad and David Wayne Thomas of the University of Michigan

Healthcare – data sharing

Impelled by its mission to save lives, in the contemporary Smart City the healthcare sector leads the way in sharing access to databases, often through public private partnerships. In May 2016, DeepMind, a company owned by Google, was given access to the healthcare data of up to 1.6 million patients in the United Kingdom. The company is developing algorithm-based software in partnership with National Health Service (NHS) hospitals to alert staff to patients at risk through kidney failure. This sort of information sharing is common. The NHS already has some 1,500 agreements with third-party organisations to process patient data.5

By comparing massive sets of patient data, DeepMind seeks to predict when someone is in the early stages of a disease that has not yet manifested. In healthcare we appear to be at a tipping point. The premise for treatment is changing. Increasingly the aim is to pre-empt illness by treating people before they become ill. Aside from Google, in 2015 Apple and IBM collaborated on a big data health platform that allows iPhone and Apple Watch users to share data to IBM's Watson Health cloud-based healthcare analytics service. And in Hong Kong, the Electronic Health Record Sharing System launched in March 2016, is capable of processing multiple types of patient data, and can be accessed by medical practitioners across the public and private sectors.6

Smart City 1.0. The electrical grid, enabled the spread of cleaner, integrated city transport systems – and the demise of the horse. William Louis Sonntag, Jr. painting of the Bowery area of New York, 1895
© William Louis Sonntag Jr. / Museum of the City of New York. 32.275.2

Goodbye horse – Welcome electricity, Welcome car!

The current Smart City is in fact a sequel. Over a century ago faced by a range of polluting technologies, cities had to get smart fast. Coal was the number one power source, and horses were still the main means of city transport. Trams, carts and taxis were all pulled by the humble horse. But there was a downside. In New York the population of 100,000 horses was producing over one thousand tonnes of horse manure per day.7 Cities were literally disappearing beneath piles of horse manure.

Innovation was the great game changer. First, the introduction of the electrical grid enabled city street cars to switch to electricity. Then, municipal governments and urban residents began to switch from the horse to cars driven by the newly invented internal combustion engine. By the early 20th century motorised taxis were being introduced and city doctors were travelling in their own cars. By 1912, cars outnumbered horses in New York and London, and in 1913 Henry Ford's Model T came on-line, leading to the widespread adoption of cars by commuters. By 1917 the days of the horse were over – they were banned from central New York.8

A beast of burden. The horse takes the strain in late 19th century Sydney
Photo courtesy of Tyrrell Collection, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney

Manhole explosions

Early adopters often experience a downside, and New York, creaking with 19th century infrastructure, is no exception. The city currently has a deadly problem with exploding manhole covers. A cover can weigh up to 150 kg and explode 50 metres up into the air, so these explosions can be fatal. The solution? Predictive analysis can be used to help make the city safer. New York has over a quarter of a million manhole covers, so the data set is large. In an oft-cited study, a team of researchers from Columbia University developed an algorithm to predict which manholes might be the next to blow.9

The power company, Con Edison, now uses this model to help prioritise inspection and repairs on the grid.

" Google's DeepMind is redefining healthcare in the UK "

Hong Kong's startup ecosystem

So how about Hong Kong – Is this a Smart City? The region has long held an impressive lead in efficient transportation infrastructure. The 1997 launch of the Octopus Card predated adoption of London's Oyster card by some six years. Conscious perhaps of the need to retain the strategic high ground, in January 2016 an Innovation and Technology Venture Fund HK$2 billion was announced to co-invest with private venture capital funds on a matching basis.

In terms of quantity, Hong Kong's startup ecosystem has rocketed in the last few years. In 2015, according to InvestHK's latest survey, there were 1,558 startups in the first 7 months alone.10 Magazines such as JumpStart chronicle this emerging culture, and Internet of Things investment is booming. Recent companies that have caught the eye include GoGoVan, a local startup that matches van drivers with customers, COSVehicle, an open source vehicle project which allows people to contribute their designs for potential full-scale production; Shape Prototype which helps startups by providing economical and effective prototyping and manufacturing solutions; and Remotec Technology, a consumer electronics company manufacturing universal remote controls.11

Manhole explosion in New York City, winter 2015
© Todd Maisel/NY Daily News/Getty Images

The disrupted city

How to set up a conducive startup ecosystem? Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation is helping to stimulate this culture by setting challenges for its IT-savvy citizens. City Challenge – Bridge to a Smarter City, is the city's first competition inviting citizens to come up with innovative technology-based applications. 12The competition is aimed at the general public and school children. Collectively citizens are encouraged: "Let's disrupt today and build a better tomorrow".

Hong Kong is also thinking regionally, and in April 2016, business groups from the mainland and Hong Kong signed a deal to develop Smart Cities into mainland China. Eric Yeung Chuen-sing, convener of Smart City Consortium, signed the agreement on behalf of some 30 major companies, including the duopoly utility companies, China Light and Power and Hong Kong Electric. The idea is to get more creative input from the mainland, to work with the larger mainland market for scale, but to use Hong Kong as a place to launch pilot schemes. Elsewhere in this magazine (Cyberport search for the next GoGoVan) we describe further efforts to create an ecosystem of innovation.

SPRING Singapore

City governments are themselves big customers. Leveraging its buying power, the Singapore government is defining its future challenges rigorously – by launching Sector Specific Accelerators (SSA). These identify, invest and grow startups in strategic sectors, such as medical and clean technology. SPRING Singapore is dedicated to enabling startups and co-invests with the accelerators on a 1:1 basis. 13Crucially, the Singapore legislation also uses challenge-based procurement methods alongside its open data strategy to derive innovative new products. A total of US$70 million has been committed under the SSA Programme to encourage the formation and growth of startups specifically in medical technology. In addition to co-investing, the accelerators take a hands-on approach to help the startups build their management teams, meet regulatory requirements and connect with potential customers.

Going autonomous

The Smart City project is increasingly about networks. Transforming Personal Mobility, a study at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, New York, has revealed the potential for autonomous cars. 14A scheme is proposed that could alleviate much of the city's traffic congestion by replacing New York's fleet of 13,000 yellow cabs with 9,000 data-optimised, autonomous cars. The networked system would decrease wait times and increase the utilisation rate of cars, resulting in greater efficiency and lower costs. Currently many taxis remain unoccupied even during peak hours, causing operating costs of up to US$4 per mile. The Columbia study claims the use of a driverless fleet would have an estimated cost per mile of just US$0.50. Pioneers such as Elon Musk, founder of electronic car maker Tesla, believe that in around two years, autonomous cars will have a technology that will enable them to safely navigate through roads. The early adoption of autonomous cars would be greatly speeded by legislation, either at city or national level. Already some countries such as the Netherlands have proposed banning sales of petrol and diesel driven vehicles by 2025.15 And in August 2016, the first ever autonomous taxi available to the public started picking up passengers in Singapore.

Air pollution is on the rise and electric vehicles are becoming popular. Hong Kong has the highest density of Tesla superchargers in the world
© Graham Jepson/Alamy

Startup city

Is it possible to spot a Smart City? According to a recent CITIE Report, smart cities work more like startups than bureaucracies.16

"They are happy to try things out and not afraid to fail. And they are increasingly delivering agile projects, prototyping, deploying user-led designs and developing digital services. As a result, they are able to move quickly as the world changes around them."

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has suggested that cities can learn from each other's experiences in a way that would be impossible at the level of national politics. 17Speed of adoption of the new technologies will vary. Progressive legislation is a huge enabler. And our bureaucracies may start to behave more like startups. Just as horse power was replaced by horsepower in a matter of years, autonomous electric vehicles can rapidly replace the fossil fuel driven engines – a radical move towards the Smart City Sequel for our own times.

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  2. ^ Nishijima, S. (1986). The economic and social history of Former Han. In Twitchett, D., & Loewe, M. (Eds.). Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220, pp 545-607.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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