Smart smart cities sooner

Councils need to be freed to make the most of the potential benefits from Smart City technology, according to Peter Robbins.

The concept of a ‘smart city’ will mean different things to different people.

For some, it could be the emerging trend of driverless cars, while for others it could lie with increased democratic participation through better use of social media.

Regardless of the individual viewpoint, it is clear digital technologies are allowing us to unlock a world of possibility for a range of people from different sectors or countries looking to improve city living.

With the Internet of Things and Big Data continuing to prosper, the potential for gathering information and acting on insights harvested is a great prospect.

And the concept is commercially attractive too, with the UK government estimating the value of smart city solutions and services at $408bn per annum by 2020.

According to analyst firm Frost and Sullivan, the combined market potential for healthcare, energy, transportation, building, infrastructure and governance is $1.5tn globally – a figure greater than the GDP of Spain.  

However, theory and forecasting are quite different to practice and implementation in realising the benefits of smarter cities. 

It is unlikely that one single body will emerge to take responsibility for managing all the possibilities of smart cities, which means local authorities are likely to take ownership on a regional level.

This role will need to be balanced against the amount of funding required for a project of this scale and complexity, particularly when we consider austerity measures are still cutting into public sector resources.

Local authorities may also be a little reticent to commit to large digital projects, given the number of high profile digital projects that have failed in the past – at significant cost to the tax payer.

This type of top down implementation may also be too slow to realise. People on the ground may well spot benefits that digital technology can deliver, but be frustrated by those higher up wanting to review each project and work it into some kind of master plan.

Former Ovum public sector analyst and smart city evangelist Joe Dignan says: “A smart city is a developing organism that takes advantage of the best contemporary technology available.”

As such, he adds that smart cities will grow, not out of one colossal agenda, but through a number of small projects that will exploit current technology.  

Superfast broadband, 4G networks, mobile devices, telematics and machine to machine solutions are already helping us do this. Bristol’s investment in a multi-million pound fibre optic broadband network to run through the city is another example of how the future of smart cities could work.

The “Bristol is Open” project is looking at how we can harvest data insights to help tackle issues including air pollution, social care, traffic congestion, and understand the impact on the city from the trial of self-driving cars.

Unlocking potential

What is needed more than anything are applications with the ability to automate the management of all these processes –as we move away from the information economy to the intelligent economy where we extract value from data.

This is about connecting and extending data silos created by smart city infrastructure. 

This is a fundamental stumbling block that needs to be resolved before we can realise the true benefits of smarter, more collaborative, cities.

Yet local government IT executives still find it challenging to create applications for these specific purposes.

Research from Mercato Solutions, found that ‘unacceptable risk’, ‘long time frames’ and ‘high costs’ ranked highly as some of  the main barriers to developing applications that join-up and automate processes.

However, the emergence of innovative ‘low code’ and ‘no code’ application development platforms are now removing these obstacles.

With the heavy coding done in the background, non-technical people use a graphical User Interface to configure models and create apps using these platforms.

Without writing code, the outcome is advanced apps delivered quicker and at less cost and risk compared to traditional bespoke software development. 

The creation of custom software by non-technical people using application platforms such as Mercato’s KnowledgeKube, makes the realisation of true smart cities even more viable.

Within just 60 days of training on one of these self-service platforms, a complete novice can become what analysts call a ‘citizen developer’, creating applications you would previously expect from experienced developers using traditional development approaches.

This is something we see time and time again with young apprentices from diverse backgrounds trained as KnowledgeKube ‘implementers’.

Smart cities have great potential, but if we are going to fully exploit their capabilities, we need to enable public executives to innovate freely, without perceived risk. 

Now, technology leaders can build their own digital teams to create unlimited applications affordably in-house, using these enterprise platforms under licence agreements often called application Platform-as-a-Service (aPaaS). 

Alternatively, a dedicated external team of no-code implementers can be engaged, allowing executives to actively collaborate in rapid application development using the benefits of a platform to deliver hosted business process applications fast and at low cost.

Developing applications in this way allows executives to test the water with mitigated risk. When organisations spot an opportunity, they can – in real-time – quickly and easily prototype, test, learn and amend applications without fear of failure.

Smart cities are no longer an alien concept – the technology that will make them function already exists, but it is crucial that we have the ability to experiment and innovate in order to realise the potential benefits sooner.

In this regard, no-code application development platforms are turning what was only a smart city possibility into a reality.

Peter Robbins is managing director at supplier Mercato Solutions

Colin Marrs

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