Not so simple: the problems of London becoming a smart city

For the capital to achieve its goal, it must overcome a few challenges.

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By the end of 2020, London city authorities are aiming to make it the world’s smartest city. A smart city is defined as an urban area that uses a variety of sensors to collect data. This data is then used to manage and improve resources and services. For any urban environment, becoming ‘smart’ comes with its challenges. But London is one of the most sophisticated metropolises around, so stepping into the future shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Not quite. Despite the city’s vast infrastructure, investment potential and reputation as Europe’s ‘tech capital’, it seems there are a few barriers standing in the way of London becoming a fully-fledged smart city.

Building on, not building in

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Did someone say vast infrastructure? While this is normally seen as a positive, it turns out – in this case – that it’s actually causing city planners a bit of a problem.

London has a huge existing network of roads, street lights, railways, public spaces and everything else you see around you. This makes retrofit (adding new technology to older systems) the only viable and cost-effective option. In other words, all the elements that are crucial to a smart city – namely IoT sensors for data collection – must be built onto what’s already there.

Compare this to a city like Shenzhen in China, which has seen a rapid rise in population from 30,000 to more than 10 million in 40 years. Essentially, it has had the benefit of building from the ground up. Today, it’s established as one of the most futuristic cities in the world. To pick out just one example, despite over three million vehicles on the roads of Shenzhen daily, heavy traffic is a rarity. This is because more than 700 million data points inform traffic police and help them run a smooth operation. A stark contrast to the gridlock of the M25 at rush hour.

With retrofit being a huge task, it means the development of some areas will naturally move faster than others. This creates the danger of digitalisation becoming a postcode lottery, something which would only serve to separate people further. But more on that later. 

Public perception

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London is pretty beautiful, isn’t it? Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey. At every turn you stumble across another piece of history. And that’s just the top attractions. A small fruit market here, a vintage pop-up clothes stand there, lots of red and white brick-lined lanes, plenty of little pockets that hark back to bygone eras. Are we ready to let that go? 

Let’s again gaze across the map to cities like Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore and Los Angeles and you’re met with the images of towering skyscrapers, glass facades and glossy steel. It’s not that those places don’t have culture or history – or that London doesn’t have its own fair share of big buildings – but that the UK capital has more character. Can the two identities work together, or even merge into one?

Psychological impact

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There’s no denying that rapid advances in technology over the last 25 years have done an immeasurable amount of good for many. But for some, technology has only exaggerated the disconnection they already felt. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy grandparent bemoaning ‘kids these days’, it is so important to take a break from technology. Numerous studies have proven that social interaction is vital to our mental and physical health.

It’s about more than simply not having your phone at the dinner table; it’s about feeling that connection with people. There’s the danger that as our cities become smarter, and our lives are more augmented by technology, we could lose the need – and eventually the desire – to talk to one another at all. It sounds alien, but it’s already happening. Just think about self-service checkouts at supermarkets and fast food restaurants… ticket machines and automatic barriers… the abundance of emailing and messaging systems we use rather than talking face to face. But humans need social connection far more than we need the convenience afforded by smart technology.

On the other hand

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Of course, there’s a flip side, with some experts believing that the increase in digitalisation will actually make us appreciate what we have even more. Dave Fitch, former manager of Edinburgh Napier University’s Smart Cities project, says “Rather than retreating from physical spaces into virtual worlds, people will place even more emphasis on architecture, retail, streets and services as we counter-intuitively seek out even more “authentic” experiences”. 

There are also plenty of examples of technology bringing people together in new and exciting ways. Interact – a Signify brand – has developed software that will allow members of the public to create their own light shows at some of the world’s most iconic landmarks. Imagine reserving a 10 minute slot to play with the colours on the London Eye from your smartphone.

Smart traffic calming measures – like those used in Shenzhen – make city centres quieter, cleaner and nicer places to be. Over in Ghent, Belgium, the ‘Circulatieplan’ policy of zero cars in the city centre has improved the atmosphere and sense of community. One citizen said, “some streets have become ‘living streets’, where the kids can play outside, skate, and adults hold barbecues”. It’s hard to imagine central London without cars, but enhanced traffic and transport systems would almost certainly relieve some of the frustration we feel towards one another. It might even open the door to better social interactions.

While there are definitely barriers to London becoming a smart city, and some valid reservations, maybe the outlook of the future doesn’t have to be so impersonal. Of course, only time will tell. But at the rate we’re moving, we won’t have to wait for very long.

Get in touch

What do you think, can – or should – London become a smart city? Connect with us on LinkedIn and continue the discussion.

And don’t forget to find out what we learned at last year’s Smart City Expo.

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