It's difficult to imagine how a financial crisis could help a city. How it could stimulate thought and drive innovation forward. Yet it appears this is exactly what's been happening in Europe over the past few years. While many of us have focused on the continent’s financial recovery and growth, others have been busily using Europe's economic doldrums to kick-start long-term change and create a new vision for a smart and sustainable future.
Europe's success in the drive to develop successful smart cities is undeniable. A quick glance at any of the recent raft of smart city league tables and one fact is immediately noticeable - Europe dominates them all. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Paris, Vienna - European cities are being championed as role models for the rest of the world to study and replicate. This stands in stark contrast to a number of years ago when European innovation in this space lagged behind the U.S. and even China.
Some within Europe attribute this success directly to the financial crisis. Ger Baron, Amsterdam’s chief technology officer, believes the economic downturn actually helped people to think differently. That financial necessity demanded that people change mindsets and focus their efforts on sustainability and the reduction of waste. Barcelona's initiatives clearly highlight this, for example:
1) Parks now include moisture sensors that activate irrigation systems when soil becomes too dry
2) Trash cans feature sensors that are triggered when they reach capacity and need to be emptied
3) Street lights use motion-controlled LEDs that reduce energy consumption
Whatever the motivation here, the success is undeniable and is seen in a multitude of other smart city applications adopted throughout Europe's major urban areas. What's perhaps most pronounced about initiatives here is the understanding of what a true smart city is. It's not simply a city that makes better use of technology. Although popular, this view is far too blinkered. Ultimately, a smart city is pervasive; it touches just about every aspect of modern life - environment, government, society, infrastructure, health, work, leisure.
In this respect, it's important to understand that true smart cities are an intertwined tapestry of people, technology and the environment. Their beauty often lies in the minutiae, in the detail. For example, consider WeSmartPark, a smartphone app that provides real-time information on Barcelona's public parking spaces in congested areas. The app helps drivers to find parking spaces much quicker and consequently helps to reduce fuel emissions and probably lower stress levels in the process.
Some commentators argue that Europe is predisposed to being a smart city leader. There's a denser urban population, better public transport, greater opportunities to walk and cycle, and a willingness to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. However, these factors are no longer the preserve of Europe, especially in regards to urban densities. Figures from the United Nations suggest megacities will increase from 24 to 32 by 2025. And by 2050, it's estimated that there will be an urban population of 6.4 billion. To accommodate such growth will require us to become much smarter about city planning.
One of the keys here will be the development of our network infrastructure. A critical cornerstone of a smart city is connectivity. Whether it be to the cloud, to each other, to our devices - robust and widespread connectivity is vital. This is especially true as the Internet of Things gathers momentum. Some of the necessary building blocks to achieving this scale of connectivity are already well underway.
In earlier blog posts, I discussed the impact of the optical reboot and the rebuilding of our core networks. I've also recently touched upon the hurdles to LTE-Advanced and what's required to take the next leap to greater mobile connectivity. Indeed, it's these two elements – fiber expansion and mobile access - that need to be addressed to fully exploit the promise of smart cities and meet the continued surge in urbanization. The intricate tapestry I spoke of earlier is dependent upon it.
The question is what happens next. How do we realize our smart city ambitions? How do we bring about the necessary governmental change? How do we champion innovation on the necessary scale? I'd be interested to hear your ideas here. Let me know what you think to smart cities and any suggestions you may have as to how we can drive forward.