The quantified city: The risks and rewards of data to our urban future


8 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

The quantified city

A 2016 report by the UN forecast that by 2030, 60 per cent of people globally will be housed in urban areas. One in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants.

With the increasing strain on infrastructure that this mass urban migration will bring, experts from all manner of disciplines – planning, architecture, sociology, environment and more – are trying to establish ways to make life safer, cleaner, more economical and prosperous for citizens. Many think that technology and smart data analysis will provide the answers.

Thanks to the infinite amount of data cities produce, governments can streamline key services like traffic or lighting using a digital network powered by the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the quantified or ‘smart’ city.

In these urban centres, information and insight power decisions. But there are dangers too. So what are the risks and rewards of these future smart cities?

The benefits of living in a smart city

Smart cities are all about efficiency. Whether that means controlling traffic to ensure minimum wait times at traffic lights (and therefore pollution), or optimising sprinkler systems in public parks so they react to weather conditions, or using smart bins to tell refuse collectors when bins need emptying – for many, the purpose of connected devices is to make a city run more smoothly. These aren’t pie in the sky ideas by the way – all these use cases form part of Barcelona’s CityOS scheme, launched in April 2015 to put digital transformation, innovation and empowerment at the heart of the city.

More than that, Easy Park’s 2017 Smart Cities Index judging criteria illustrates just how important the smart use of data can be. The report assesses cities on:

  • Smart parking
  • Traffic
  • Public Transport
  • Clean energy
  • Smart buildings
  • Waste disposal
  • Environment protection
  • Urban planning
  • Education
  • Digitisation of government
  • Citizen participation

…to name a few.

Data, and the smart use of it, can improve key elements of our society, streamlining services, saving money and improving our lives. And it works. In 2015, a McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that by 2025 cities could save up to $1.7 trillion a year in delivering services if they deploy new digital systems on a large scale. On a more granular level, CNN Money reports that the cost of adding smart meters and energy saving bulbs to 160,000 LA lamp posts is around $14 million – annual saving of $8 million. Making services more efficient makes them cheaper.

And what about improving lives? Copenhagen, Easy Park’s ‘smartest city’ in 2017, is also the 2nd happiest country in the world according to the World Happiness Report 2017. Stockholm/Sweden, Zurich/Switzerland, and Melbourne/Australia also make both lists. And while you could argue that these are progressive cities in general, making a city more efficient undoubtedly contributes to residents’ wellbeing.

There’s a further social layer to smart cities: ‘empowerment’; ‘citizen participation’ – these concepts are central to making these schemes ethical. Making data available to the people that matter – the public – ensures a level of transparency that’s hugely important if urban residents are to trust the way governments use our data.

Copenhagen describes itself as a ‘living lab’, and provides free access to three decades of government collected data via its City Data Exchange to help drive smart city innovation. In an interview with Geospatial World, Winn Nielsen, Head of City Data, City of Copenhagen, Denmark explained the importance of keeping the data freely available: “Open data is a central point for any city that is smart in its character. We are trying to make data available to the public — not only to ensure transparency — but also to make our citizens better informed. The sharing of data would enable us to have a dialogue because the citizens know as much as we do.”

From Dubai to Singapore to Bristol to San Francisco, cities are tapping into data to quantify and streamline governance, transport, sustainability and more. But an increasingly connected world leaves itself open to risks.

The risks of smart cities

The NHS, Verizon, Yahoo – huge organisations one and all, and three of many to be compromised by security failures over the past couple of years.. In these instances, hackers bypassed security measures and put people’s personal data out in the public domain. But what happens if an entire city gets hacked? A network that controls city lighting, transport infrastructures, CCTV, emergency services – essentially everything – puts residents at huge risk. If we can’t lock up our businesses, how will we secure our cities?

Dubai, which launched its smart city initiative – Smart Dubai – in 2015, thinks it may have one answer – blockchain. For those uninitiated, blockchain is an incorruptible, decentralised digital ledger of transactions. Still confused? We recommend reading this more detailed explanation of blockchain and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The relevant thing to know for this piece – it’s virtually impossible to hack.

In February 2016, Dubai Future Foundation announced the launch of the Global Blockchain Council, which now consists of over 40 members from government bodies to banks, international companies and Blockchain technology firms. Foreseeing significant growth in the Blockchain market, the Council’s aim is to improve the understanding of Blockchain, analyse regulatory implications and conduct pilot projects using the technology.

In March 2017, Smart Dubai announced that it was partnering with IBM as its Blockchain strategic partner and ConsenSys as its Blockchain city advisor. The plan is to have all government documents – from healthcare and transportation to banking and real estate – secured via Blockchain technology by 2020. This, coupled with advances in things like quantum cryptography, would ensure that external agents are kept at bay.

But the risks of smart cities do not only come from outside – what happens when the state itself is the problem?

In 2014, the State Council of China published “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” – a document which proposed a trust score to rate its 1.3 billion residents. In 2014, it was an idea, by 2020, the Social Credit Score system will be live. And at its heart are connected devices and data analysis.

The system will see what you buy at the shops and online; monitor your movements by GPS; evaluate who your friends are and how you interact with them; assess how long you spend online; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). This information won’t just be monitored, it will be assessed to give residents their ‘Citizen Score’. So far, so 1984.

Facial recognition isn’t anything new – countries around the world, including the UK, use it to monitor potential threats – but the ethical debate is around why states collect data, who they are monitoring and how they use it. Should you really be facially recognised at every transport point and store you enter? What happens if you happen to be on the wrong street at the wrong time, and are swept up by a police request for personal ID or vehicle registrations. Is that fair? Similarly, access to data will be tightly secured, so what happens if a mistake is made – how will we go about rectifying that?

These are the ethical questions smart cities will need to overcome if they’re to be adopted and embraced by the citizens that live there.

Finally, there’s the issue of control. If a river bridge lifts at the wrong time, or all the buses stop because there’s an eclipse (light sensors say it is night, ignoring the clock), a disaster or major inconvenience could damage people’s trust in the system. Repeated failures could result in massive costs and systems being scrapped, especially for budget-strapped councils trying to build smart cities “on the cheap.”


“What is the city but the people?” Shakespeare wrote in Coriolanus. But what if cities are people? Smart cities are constantly evolving entities, using data to make their own decisions about how they operate. Just like people, they can be generous and giving, but also open to corruption from powerful influences.

For us to trust them, transparency and monitoring will be key. With the power put in the hands of the public, smart cities can form an important digital layer to our whole lives – improving our quality of life, helping the environment and creating a better place to live.


Image credit:

By Marc Averette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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