This story appeared in the December issue of DCNN with the title The Greatest Salesman.
At what point does technology cross the line from helpful to unsettling, or even worse, a security threat? It’s what many cities across the world now have to decide thanks to the emergence of smart city technology.
Just as smart technology has
enabled consumers to control every aspect of their home, whether it’s their
lights, the cameras, or even the temperature of a specific room, it is now
moving into the city streets. It’s here where industry players such as Huawei
are hoping to win over cities with the latest and greatest technologies,
promising money savings and easier city management.
Everywhere you looked at the
recent Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, the message was clear that
cities across the world are on-board with getting connected. Places such as
Leeds and Tel Aviv were boasting about their technological innovations, and how
its adoption of technology could help people live a better quality of life.
That’s the message that was also coming out of the big tech firms that were at
the event, including Microsoft, Nokia and Huawei; technology can lead to better
So, why are cities so interested
in smart technology? Well, it’s quite simple. There are a number of benefits
that can be afforded to city governments from the use of technology. Whether
it’s saving money through lighting control, or providing first responders with
an exact location of an incident. The whole idea of a smart city is to provide
the city government with as much data as possible to efficiently do its job.
Some will say that the amount of
data gathered by an ultra-smart city will be ‘creepy’ and that it’s a total
invasion of privacy, and to some extent, they’d be right. The point of smart
cities isn’t to be invasive, however, it’s to make cities more ‘liveable’ – and
that was a common theme from around the Smart City Expo World Congress.
Can technology make cities more liveable?
When we think about liveable
cities, we often think about simple human resources; whether it’s access to
clean air, water or a space to live. Amsterdam’s approach is slightly
different, however. According to Henk Van Raan, CIO, Amsterdam Johan Cruijiff
Arena,the city is pursuing a policy
of ‘smart and liveable by design’.
In essence, that means by taking a
holistic approach to the design of the city – not siloing certain aspects, such
as traffic management or mobility, but looking at the city as a whole, and how
everything is intertwined. That means rather than looking at simply how smart
lighting will affect the bottom line, it may be better at looking at what
possibilities there are for smart lighting for the city as a whole – and what
other technologies could complement it.
The important factor in the
roll-out of smart cities will be the citizens. While governments will be
gathering a colossal amount of data on its inhabitants, it needs to understand
exactly what Henk said during the Smart City Expo World Congress, “We are not
making the cities for ourselves, we’re making the cities for citizens.”
It’s why it’s so important that
city governments are able to convey the benefits of smart technology
effectively. Looking around the Smart City Expo World Congress, it’s not
exactly clear that they are quite up to that task just yet; there were many
cameras and facial recognition systems on show, something that is definitely on
the creepier end of the spectrum. This event was definitely not geared towards
Maybe that shows the priorities of
city governments. Rather than focusing on the way technology can actually make
cities more liveable, through better lighting, better traffic management and
better city layouts, they were more focused on the authoritarian side of the
technology. This sort of technology is already in-use in places such as China,
where city officials can track individual members of the public as they move
around the city through the use of AI and facial recognition.
Thankfully, there were some
solutions that seemed to be genuinely useful to the average person. One example
described by Huawei was how its smart city platform could help traffic lights
work more efficiently. Through the use of sensors, the company’s AI was able to
cut traffic jams at one junction in Shenzhen by 17.7%, and having rolled out
this technology to even more areas around the city, it is now ranked as the 46th
most congested city in the world – having previously been ranked fifth.
That’s not to say surveillance
technology can’t be useful; it can help catch criminals, find the source of a
fire, or generally keep law and order, but it’s rarely at the top of anyone’s list
– to be monitored more.
Can Huawei defeat political forces?
Huawei is one of the big names
touting a smart city solution, and its recently launched Digital Platform for
Smart Cities is its biggest offering yet – promising to tie together all of the
city’s functions into one easy-to-manage platform.
Cities across the world have
already adopted the solution, with the firm touting that more than 160 cities
in over 40 countries have it integrated into their management operations. That
includes places such as Duisburg in Germany and Sardinia in Italy.
Unfortunately, Huawei’s platform
roll-out is facing an uphill battle in some other nations, where the company
itself has come under intense scrutiny. Australia banned Huawei’s technology from
its 5G network in August, while in November the US government began advising
allies against using Huawei technology. The firm has also hit a roadblock in
Japan, with the nation once again considering banning it supplying equipment
for a 5G network.
Now, while national governments
are pushing back against Huawei, the firm insists that cities have nothing to
worry about in regard to using its technology. In fact, Joe So, CTO of Huawei
Enterprise Industry Solutions, hit back at the politically-motivated attacks
against the company, noting that if 45 of the top 50 global phone carriers can
trust Huawei technology, then so can cities around the world.
There will still be issues for
Huawei, however. With a hostile US government, it’s unlikely that its technology
is going to be powering the big American cities anytime soon. Instead, the
likes of Microsoft and IBM will make a concerted effort to hoover up contracts,
leaving Huawei out in the cold. Thankfully, the company has better favour with
the megacities of China.
Huawei doesn’t want to dominate
the smart city market, however. The firm is taking an open approach to the
industry, focusing on partnerships and collaboration. It also realises that a successful smart city
will need to be neither too business or technology-driven, and it must offer
value for both the city and its inhabitants.
There’s no denying that smart
cities are ready to be rolled out, and they already are in some instances. To
be ubiquitous, however, cities need to be careful as to showcasing the benefits
that a connected city will bring, rather than focusing on the controversial,
data harvesting side. Huawei will also have to navigate the challenges of
winning over cities in nations that have taken an increasingly sceptical stance
on Chinese businesses, especially in the polarised world we live in. Whatever
form the smart city takes, they’re here to stay.