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Imagine a city like London plunged in to darkness

Posted: 13th July 2016

Neil Thompson

Head of Digital Research & Innovation

Balfour Beatty UK

The idea of a smart city is to combine inter-connected networks of people and ‘things’. Inter-connected networks are already a well-established technology; it’s the internet! We have already witnessed the dramatic impact of connecting nearly 3.4 billion people through the internet, affecting governments and societies across the globe. Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google said in 2013 that there are no technological barriers to placing all of the world’s information in to the hands of everyone. The only barriers that remain are legal and cultural.

What is a smart city anyway? The UK’s Government in 2013 explained that the concept is not static and an absolute definition hasn’t been made. However, it does explain that a smart city mimics the innovation that has happened in the consumption of private goods and services over the internet. The disruption of the music industry is a good example, moving from selling physical to digital records.

Consumers have been empowered by the internet via platforms like Amazon and Tripadvisor, where decision making is supported by consumer reviews of products and services. Smart cities aim to do the same with public services, such as hospitals, schools and transport integrated with private services (imagine your fridge telling your local shop to hand you a pint of milk at the train station as you pass on the way home). The ultimate objective is to place decision making in to the hands of all consumers of public and private goods and services by providing real time information and analysis. This is what the CIC BE2050 report described as the “smart social-political process” and is what will shift the foundation of our political landscape.

The EU Referendum highlighted the sorry state of our [society in general] ability to use data to present important political arguments. However, regardless of the result it presents an opportunity for us in the construction industry to show that a truly smart city requires a foundation of information fed from the built environment via the internet of things in order to surface the truth about the use of our built environment.

But how does an ‘internet of things’ address this issue? This is where we look to the manufacture of jet engines and the circular economy. Rolls Royce celebrated the 50th anniversary of offering power-by-the-hour in 2012. Instead of selling a commodity (in this case an engine) Rolls Royce sell an output of engine power per hour. Instead of selling a product, they sell a service. Rolls Royce tracks all their assets in real-time using an internet of things style approach. Primarily it demonstrates the delivery of their contractual obligations with airlines but also ensures maintenance is completed in the most efficient way. Interestingly, this also incentivises the design of the engines to be efficient over their whole life, not at the point of sale of the engine to the airline in the traditional jet engine market.

Is this starting to sound familiar? If the construction industry was to embed sensors in to our assets, could we deliver a more efficient product? Could we deliver a better service to the users of the built environment?

However, is it sustainable to embed technology in to everything? Will the cost in energy and materials of the smart city be outweighed by the benefits? The charging of mobile devices has a negligible impact on our energy bills. However, the energy demand of streaming services that require cloud computing from these devices is massive in comparison and a potential hurdle for smart cities. The collection of data from the sea of sensors on the Internet of Things combined with the information from the Internet of People is known as Big Data. The computation of Big Data in to useful insight requires a great deal of computing power from data centres. As this technology scales, it presents an ecological challenge for data centre design.

A final challenge for smart cities is security. In 2015 Ukraine was victim of a hack in to their national power grid as 80,000 of their citizens were plunged in to darkness. This represents a tangible threat to the welfare of citizens. However, there is also a less tangible threat to the occupier of these cities, consumer protection. Apple’s terms and conditions are famously longer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth and highlights that our personal rights require modification when participating in a smart city. I personally believe the aggregation of our personal data is greater than the sum of its parts, requiring a profound shift in our urban culture to be successful.

My challenge to industry is to think about how we deliver value in an IoT world. What do our businesses look like if we shifted our delivery from outputs to services? I want to see our industry take a lead in building the digital foundation of our smart social-political process, and lastly I want our industry to be proactive in developing consumer behaviours when designing, building and operating digitally connected buildings and infrastructure.

Contributer: Neil Thompson is the Head of Digital Research & Innovation for Balfour Beatty UK and Chief Executive of dotBuiltEnvironment, a network that promotes digital adoption across the built environment

Neil will be speaking at the Construction Industry Summit as part of the 'Smart Cities, Open Data - a data driven future' Session.