Need for Business Innovation in Developing “Smart Cities”


A series of articles posted to Infrastructure Intelligence, like the one posted here and its embedded report, outline the increasing need for greater innovation to be built in to every day interactions within a city, creating a “smart city.” According to the report, a smart city is one that “requires city authorities to completely reimagine their service offering, and opens up opportunities to act proactively rather than reactively.” Instead of discussing the specific technological and green advancements that can be applied to create and promote smart cities, the article and report look at 21 cities across the globe and measure their efficiency at using such technology in the environmental sector. The report finds that while there has been an increase in focus on the environment in Asian, Australian and European countries, there is still vast areas where innovation has not been infused. For example, in the United States, this often focuses on increasing air quality, missing the opportunity to use other technological advances to improve a city’s management of waste, water, carbon, green travel, and green infrastructure.

Room for Improvement

According to the report and the article, this is a result of “siloed thinking,” the misperception that air quality, carbon emissions, waste and green space are entirely separate issues to be dealt with in entirely different ways coupled with the added segregation of environmentalists from tech experts, engineers and city planners. The report advances the need for a more holistic “smart city” that is treated as a single system.

Additionally, the focus in the US and in the United Kingdom is on compliance instead of efficiency or public health. Cities, therefore, work to achieve legal-compliance as opposed to creating a better life for its’ citizens. The report also cites business models as an impediment to creating smart cities, explaining the tragedy of the commons and the difficulty in monetizing environmental solutions.

The report cites a few interesting examples that can be illustrative here: Glasgow’s Smart Canals and Breathe London. In Glasgow, Scotland, the City Council decided to use predictive technology to mitigate flood risk while opening up 110 hectares of land for development. While such predictive technology might not be entirely useful in the Midwest,  using technology in location-specific ways that are both environmentally-friendly and development-enhancing is a lesson we can all take away from Glasgow.

Canal in Scotland – taken July 2016.

Breathe London combines three separate projects to measure London-citizen’s exposure to air pollution, one that maps air quality from 100 sensor lamps on street posts, one that uses Google map street cars to measure roadway-level air pollution, and a third measuring the air quality of children and school-teachers on their way to and from school using wearable technology. While air quality is not uniquely a London issue, London has historically had an issue with air quality. Both London and Glasgow teach that understanding each city’s issues and measuring the harm is an important first step but technological innovation can also go so much further.

It seems that the missing piece here is not at all a lack of innovation in technology or a lack of drive to create such smart cities, but rather a lack of communication. Related articles on Infrastructure Intelligence also cite to a different kind of “siloed thinking” between the construction and infrastructure sectors, the technology sector, and the environmental sector. Perhaps this issue can be mitigated while working towards another goal: a business that combines these three areas and works to promote the application of innovations to environmental needs within cities; after all, can something really be innovative if it is not being utilized?


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