Smart cities are built by the people, for the people

Mike Young

By Mike Young
Group CIO

Innovative breakthroughs for urban living discussed at  London Tech Week.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched London Tech Week yesterday with a rallying call to make our capital the “world’s leading smart city”. But, amidst the innovative breakthroughs and headlines that pronounce how tech will make our lives one day and break them the next, it can be easy to forget that such a city has to be built around its people. 

Last night, Centrica, the energy and services company invited leading names from the capital’s tech, innovation and digital ecosystems to discuss the future of our connected world, focusing on challenges faced by cities today and the role that technology and innovation can play in creating sustainable solutions. Together, guests agreed that no smart city can succeed without putting people first and every new device and service needs to have the end user in mind. 

One of the guests remarked that the barriers to building sophisticated, connected cities continue to be lowered: “the information has always been there, but now we can store and make full sense of it”. Ambitious investment in information and communication systems means data can be exploited, and its potential unleashed, like never before.

As a result, Internet of Things (IoT) devices proliferate in cities: from traffic systems that provide real time alerts to drivers, to waste bins equipped with electronic fill sensors to alert for collection and cloud-based services that are ushering in the age of driverless vehicles. One estimate forecasts the number of IoT devices to grow to almost 31 billion worldwide by 2020 – twice as many as in 2015. One guest concluded: “with billions more connected devices and vast amounts of data generated and captured that we can process in an intelligent way, we can shape the future”.

Technology must serve the needs and wants of people. At Centrica our purpose is to satisfy the changing needs of the customer. We aim to be at the heart of our customers lives – central to helping them run their world.

As one guest said, “if you create tech and forget about the user case, it’s not worth it”. The technology behind smart cities of the future has to encourage inclusivity as much as it boosts efficiency and lowers cost for the end user; it needs to increase productivity but, equally, happiness. The human being must be at the centre of the city of the future: urban areas that are simpler, healthier, easier places for people to live and work. One guest was optimistic that such a future was in reach, “I’ve seen how entrepreneurs have taken technology and improved people’s lives in the cities by providing better education, healthcare and local services”.

Yet, the pace of change at which modern technology moves can create challenges. Indeed, recent history is littered with events that demonstrate how regulation has struggled to keep up with technology’s great leaps forward. As one guest put it, “By the time [a start-up] gets moving, it’s beyond the regulations and then the lawmakers are scrambling, trying to adapt to what the new business is doing”.

It is important that businesses and policymakers work together to build smart cities where innovation is neither stifled nor allowed to run riot. Leading entrepreneurial innovators like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who recently spoke about the need to control artificial intelligence for the good of workers, show one approach to this issue.

Cities are economic, political and creative hotspots because of the people who choose to live there, not because of the tech that runs them. This will not change in the future, and it is what guides Centrica’s thinking in everything it does for the residential and business customer. Each new device and service must satisfy the changing needs of the customer, making future cities fit around those needs -not the other way around.

With such a vision at the front and centre of how we choose to live our lives, together we can build connected cities that provide better environments to everyone who calls them home.