Smart City Designs Should Be Citizen Centric


Smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are being explored and developed to improve standards of living. Institute of Sustainable Energy (iSE) by InnoEnergy course director, Dr. Pep Salas Prat, argues that every smart city plan should begin with citizen needs and not technology.

Cities around the world dream of becoming smart cities. But all too often their efforts lack a coherent strategy. Sacksful of sensors does not make a city smart. And unless carefully analysed, all the data in the world will not help city planners and power professionals to make better decisions. Rather, they need only collect the right data at the right time to gain the insight with which to innovate. Unfortunately, that is not what they are doing. The problem is that city planners and energy professionals have fallen in love with smart grid technology. They know that it has huge potential and think that they just need to apply it to achieve their aims. This approach is back to front. Instead of swooning over the solution, those tasked with designing our smart cities should be focused on winning the hearts of the end users: those who live in the cities and whose problems they hope to solve.

True innovation is about people

Building a smart grid is not true innovation. But building one around people’s lives, to help them to live more comfortably, affordably and sustainably is innovation of the highest order.

That is the real promise of smart grids within smart cities. In an ideal world, citizens’ data would be collected from smart devices and appliances and aggregated across the network in real-time. The grid would then respond to provide power wherever and whenever needed in the most efficient way possible – saving people money and reducing the emissions associated with surplus energy production.

But we are a long way off. From privacy and security concerns to the perception that utilities firms are faceless, impersonal corporations, there are any number of reasons that the public is reluctant to share this data with power providers.

Those responsible for building our smart cities need to take notice and take action to reassure consumers that they understand the data belongs to the user, not the utility, and that they will collect, store and share citizens’ data responsibly, using it to innovate—to improve people’s lives.

Microgrids as neighbourhoods

Smart city planners need to take into account how people want to organise their lives. One such example is the rise of energy communities, such as in Bristol, UK, of which microgrids are the next logical extension.

Bristol has been forward looking through its investment in Bristol is Open, a joint venture between Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol. This has resulted in a Smart City Research and Development network platform of multiple communications technologies installed around the city.

A key element of Bristol’s smart city and innovation strategy is a focus on citizen-centric solutions. Thanks in part to its collaborative approach, Bristol has overtaken London as the UK’s leading smart city according to the second UK Smart Cities Index, commissioned by Huawei UK and conducted by Navigant Consulting. Released late in 2017, the report was based on evaluations of 20 city strategies, their projects and use of digital technology to improve crucial civic services.

As micro-scale renewable solutions become more affordable, we are set to see a great increase in their uptake, with small communities pooling their resources together on microgrids. These will be the neighbourhoods that make up our smart cities.

City planners and power professionals need to think differently to remain relevant to such communities. No longer can they act as all-powerful providers of energy, pumping it in one direction across the grid. They will need to become collaborators, working with communities to enable them to live the lives they wish to lead.

Education enabling empathy

This is asking a lot. And, as is so often the case, education is the answer. As local authorities look to help citizens develop a more flexible infrastructure and utilities pivot to the provision of services, rather than kilowatt-hours, they will need to understand two things: the electricity value chain, going beyond their own role within it, and the needs, desires and behaviours of energy consumers, who they must support in their ambitions. Ultimately, it’s only by showing citizens the same love that they do technology will those responsible for designing smart cities be able to keep their most important relationship alive.

Working with InnoEnergy’s iSE Dr. Prat has designed ‘Smart Grids for Smart Cities: Towards Zero Emissions’ to provide just such an education. The online programme has been created to empower city planners and power professionals to develop innovative new solutions to the issues that arise as they build smart cities—solutions that take into account all elements of power production, distribution and consumption. But most critically, the role of people within all stages of it.

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