From smart cities to intelligent urban ecosystems

Gartner’s Bettina Tratz-Ryan discusses how smart cities are evolving into more agile and flexible systems

Tratz-Ryan: Cities need to create structures that can continuously evolve.
Tratz-Ryan: Cities need to create structures that can continuously evolve.

Smart city programs need to evolve to reflect an ongoing process of transformation, rather than goals or a checklist, according to Bettina Tratz-Ryan, VP Analyst. Gartner.

Speaking to SmartCities Arabia, Tratz-Ryan said that as the technology landscape matures, cities need to think about whether they have the flexibility and agility to continuously deliver against changing conditions and requirements. The analyst company is shifting its conversations from smart cities to ‘intelligent urban ecosystems’, “because that is what a smart city really should service, it should service citizens, entrepreneurs, industry, government,” she said.

“There is no end goal with smartness, it is very hard to say that this is what ‘success’ or 'good’ looks like; that is the IT view of thinking about smart city as processes that can be checked off.

“The power of intelligent urban ecosystems, is that it makes the city environment and society agile enough to respond and work with any issue or event in the evolution of the society, whether it is a positive or negative disruption, population change, climate change, whatever.

“I don’t think today the goal is to say ‘because we have delivered 400 applications, this is a smart city’. We should look at the flexibility and agility in society and government to have a responsive and engaging environment.”

The smart cities landscape in the GCC reflects the diversity of different models and areas of focus for smart programs, Tratz-Ryan said, from Dubai’s early leadership position and high-level strategic focus on citizen happiness, to Oman’s more vertical approach to focus on energy and environmental sustainability. Other cities may focus on areas like transport and utilities, to improve the operational efficient, she added. The development of these smart cities is also happening in parallel with digital evolution in industry and business, and with more tech-savvy and tech-demanding young populations coming to the fore.

These factors mean that there is no single model for smart cities as such, she said: “What we found over the years in our research is that there is not one smart city. Actually smart city is a marketing term, you could be a sustainable city, a green city, an engaged city.”

More important to a smart city is developing the ecosystem around it, in terms of technology, as well education and skills. Technology has proven problematic in the past, for the Middle East as well as Europe, because so much of the technology has originated in the US or the Far East.

Cities like Dubai have made progress in addressing this, Tratz-Ryan added, through developing a technology innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. Dubai has also benefitted from having leadership buy-in at the highest level. Dubai has done a good job of discussing the opportunities of digital, and promoting the opportunities, which has helped to invite collaboration and attracted entrepreneurs to develop a technology ecosystem.

Having a manifesto which is focused on the strategy is also a part of transforming to an intelligent urban ecosystem rather than simply deploying technology for its own sake.

“It is important [that cities] don’t see technology as the main objective, but rather as an enabler for developing these ecosystems,” she said.

There are still some common barriers to realising an intelligent urban ecosystem. Cities in the GCC have generally benefited from having decision making and budgets that are controlled by one central entity, which allows for faster decision making, and the ability to launch comprehensive, city-wide and top-down projects, compared to other cities where different departments or municipal boroughs all have to have buy in and approve a budget, and where projects have tended towards individual initiatives focused on specific issues, in a more bottom-up approach.

“We see bottom up approaches are more cumbersome, because if you don’t have a visible leader that will make a priority of these projects, they could go all over the place - they could be completely vendor-led, because everybody has a different prioritisation map,” Tratz-Ryan said.

Even the top down approach can fail to develop an enabled ecosystem however, if cities don’t include conversation among government and citizens, she added.

Conversation and open dialogue is of growing importance in addressing some of other concerns that are emerging in the drive towards intelligent ecosystems.

“The development of trust is a major issue,” said Tratz-Ryan. “We talk about trust in infrastructure, but we rarely see all the stakeholders having a clear strategy on how to protect the infrastructure, how to protect the sensors, and video cameras and the critical platform environment. It is not very transparent how well all these stakeholders are working together, so cybersecurity is a huge issue.

“The second issue is data trust, that has very much to do with the ethical concern that citizens and organisations have, on how much data is actually beneficial, and how much data use is actually also societal acceptable - the bottom line is really about the trust level that users and citizens have for their ecosystem.”

The level of trust that citizens put in city authorities with regards to proper handling of their data will vary across age groups and communities, Tratz-Ryan said, so for example young people in Saudi may have less concern about sharing their data than they would in Germany, where data privacy is already a heavily debated subject. Cities can build trust by implementing clear policies and laws around data, and through clear communication on the same.

“The challenge here is how well leaders in government, and leaders in industry that are building the ecosystem for smart city, actually are trustworthy, and are communicating what is the ‘win-win’ of data exchange, This is just the beginning as analytics and AI become much more embedded, so the ethical part will be at the forefront of the discussion around the future design of ecosystems.”

The third issue is digital equality, which Gartner sees as the gap between digitised systems and the citizens who are aware of them and are able to use them, and those sections of society who are not able to access them. There can be a number of reasons why citizens are not able to gain the benefit of digital systems, she said, including digital literacy, lack of connectivity, lack of education or fear of digital systems, or just simple lack of awareness.

“That gap can substantially widen with the increase of smartness or technology in these intelligent urban ecosystems,” Tratz-Ryan said. “In Gartner we are doing a lot of research on this right now, it is becoming a big challenge, not that technology is not available, but do people know how to use it to their best interest.

“These are questions that we need to ask when we speak about smart cities and urban intelligent ecosystems, it is about inclusion and about equality of digital capabilities and opportunities.”

Follow us on

Most Popular