What is the collective noun for a group of Smart cities? Let’s call it a Yinchuan.

200 representatives from City authorities around the world descended on Yinchuan, in the independent economic area of Ningxia in China, to put a stake in the ground for Smart City development. This was the TM Forum’s inaugural Smart City forum. Sponsored by the City of Yinchuan, its forward-thinking secretary and ZTE Soft, the event was to establish a base line of where we are on the much hyped journey to Smart cities. The notion of One Map, One Network and One Cloud was the theme of the opening comments from the Yinchuan dignitaries.

Yinchuan, a City of some 2 million people, has taken an aggressive approach to turning itself into a new Smart City hub for the region. By the way, this is where Genghis Kahn reached before being defeated! The centralised Citizen Hall demonstrates how they are transforming the delivery of citizens’ services:

  • All services can be accessed through the centre in phase 1 and will all go online and mobile in subsequent phases.
  • Smart housing also comes in the form of gated communities with facial recognition on the gates, Smart delivery systems for delivering goods and a Smart drinking water system in each building for citizens to fetch their daily requirements.
  • Terminals in each apartment also give people the means of connecting with medical services as well as the Citizen Hall in latter phases of the development.

From outside China, the input to the debate came from cities as far apart as Dubai, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Cape Town, Bristol, Singapore, Toronto/ Mississauga and Lisbon.

The themes throughout were consistent:

  • Transport and travel is one of the early focuses for the cities, reducing traffic and carbon footprint of congested cities through integrated bus, train, vehicle, bicycle (but not so much pedestrian) flows.
  • Open Data sets: all cities talked about the drive towards developing or mandating open data sets upon which the City as well as third parties could build functionally useful applications. This forces departments to their publish data on the web, also accelerating the availability of information based on legacy and diverse technology platforms
  • Data analytics for visualising the flows of all moving parts in the City “listening to the City” showed the potential for adjusting services on a real-time basis, whether it be pot holes, cycle routes or finding a doctor in a medical emergency
  • Putting the citizen at the heart of the Smart City rather than the governmental machinery delivering services
  • The Smart City initiative has to be driven from on high within the city: a champion is essential along with a mandate to drive the initiative across all formerly independent silos of local and regional authorities
  • Infrastructure is key: leveraging owned fibre and WiFi connectivity, along with data centre facilities
  • Building up the sensor and monitoring infrastructure to feed the data analytics engines should aim to be embraced by the citizens and not fall into the trap of being seen as Big Brother and just another means of monitoring what people are doing
  • Gamification of services to get people on board: animation using street lamps and videoing tricks as well as the chance to ‘talk’ to a lamppost!
  • The use of smart identity cards to act as the hub for citizen services also came through as an important contributor
  • Crowd-sourcing and collective development of smart services such as real time traffic reporting, means that the citizen becomes a vital part of creating, driving and continuously improving the suite of services supporting the city
  • Partnership between the city authority and local universities and business helps accelerate the smart deployment and develop a broader platform for all stakeholders to enjoy
  • Simulation: the data centre, compute and storage facilities can also be used to let other less developed cities test how theirs would look and behave

Some very impressive demonstrations of analytics, visualisation and how things might look in the future came from all points of the compass. Defining the Smart City still struggles to get a consistent answer but the City Protocol Group outlined their not-for-profit approach to defining the ‘anatomy’ of the city and the interrelationship between infrastructure, services and citizens. This will certainly help all parties work together to drive this initiative.

The City of Groningen in the Netherlands got the biggest round of applause from the audience. Their deputy mayor described the way in which they are making their city smarter. The best example was how analytics, combined with weather reports and the traffic light management system were being mashed up to give cyclists priority through traffic lights when it rains heavily.

Singapore provoked a strong reaction when describing how city planning, based on visualisation of patterns of travel, allowed the ‘smart state’ to redevelop a former cemetery by moving a key successful school into the district, subsequently removing peoples’ barriers to living in such an area!

Yinchuan should be praised for its initiative. No doubt the facilities being built around the city will attract significant business activity from inside and outside China alike. Ironically, communications was one of the short-comings of the event. Flying to Yinchuan via Shanghai or Beijing needs to be improved, as does the WiFi serving the international conference centre and the citizen centre.

The focus on citizens did raise an unanswered question as to how they will be segmented. After all, citizens represent a diverse set of communities, households, individuals of different earning power, ethnicity and disability. Conversations with many speakers afterwards revealed an acknowledgement of the need to work on this aspect of the Smart City. It was agreed that building accessibility for all citizens, an inclusive Smart City policy, was necessary in order to leverage the investment.

The vision is of an inclusive set of services available to all citizens through mobile and fixed connections, delivering an improvement in quality of life, ‘happiness’ and a brighter economic future for the smartest cities. The transformation required from the city organisations themselves is significant. Political will, along with appropriate investment in infrastructure and service culture will be the acid test for the world’s Smart Cities and this initiative from the TM Forum.

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