Smart cities: first, define your strategy

How smart are we really being about smart mobility? Martin Howell of Worldline UK and Ireland reckons we could do better – but to do so you have to start asking the right questions…
Classification & Data Collection / April 27, 2020 3 mins Read
 © Pop Nukoonrat |
© Pop Nukoonrat |

For years now, smart mobility has promised so much in transforming the world’s cities and making the lives of those who live in them easier, more enjoyable and more efficient. How much of that promise is really being delivered? Could we be doing better?

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that the United Nations predicts will increase to 68% by 2050. Global Infrastructure Basel estimates that 75% of the urban infrastructure that will be in place by 2050 doesn’t even exist today – which is in itself a massive opportunity.

New apps and ideas are popping up at a dizzying rate, although these are feeding the phenomenon of FOMO – fear of missing out – which in turn is driving some ill-judged and hasty tech acquisition decisions. The rush to technology is at best frequently disjointed and uncoordinated, and at worst, a complete waste of money.

Of course we have made progress, but could we do better, with a different approach? Logic says that first we define our strategy, then build our policy around that - and only then make the decisions on technology and innovation acquisition. Seems simple, but it doesn’t always happen. Often we have pre-existing infrastructure and cannot begin from a clean sheet. So what to do?

Ultimate destination

The key is a credible, deliverable strategy for the long term, through to 2050. Only by knowing the ultimate destination can you decide what paths to take today. What do you want your city to be? Economically more efficient? Reduced congestion? More travel options, maybe through Mobility as a Service? More environmentally responsible? Or simply, make the most efficient use of an ageing infrastructure? Once you define that, which might be a combination of aims, you can set the policies to achieve it - a vision that must be sufficiently robust to survive changes in political administration, focused on indisputable benefits for urban dwellers.

What policy decisions do you need to make to realise your strategy? How far ahead do you need to look and how do you lift this process out of the mire of short-term political interests? What are the respective roles of central government, local government and transport authorities and of private enterprise? And crucially, who will be responsible for making it happen? There has to be a ‘controlling mind’ with the authority and responsibility for the entire strategy. This will never be easy to implement in a world of fragmented infrastructure and multiple interests, but all too often, promising initiatives flounder for lack of decision-making and the drive to bring all parties together.

It will never be easy - technology develops so fast - but control and a logical approach can be more easily achieved if you have a framework in place.

People have legitimate fears about privacy © Melpomenem |
People have legitimate fears about privacy © Melpomenem |

Success hinges on data and its use. Are you using all the data sources that you could be? Do you have a data policy? Who owns that data? What incentives exist for sharing? And if you do share it, what are you sharing it for? Is there a plan, or end goal… or is it a free for all? How far do you want to integrate different data sources? These could be from payments, traffic movement, human mobility (pedestrians and bikes) or vehicle location. The answers will depend on the balance between what you want to invest and what outcome you are seeking to achieve.

Without doubt, decisions on data use must also take into account people’s legitimate fears over privacy. It is easy to see such concerns as paranoia but around the world, for well-publicised reasons, the fears are real. BBC Radio 4’s The Digital Human reported on Hong Kong protesters in London who continued wearing their masks even when not protesting - because they believed that the London public safety cameras could be hacked from Beijing.

Knee-jerk reactions

Policy and legislation are interlinked, and right now, much of the legislation is going the wrong way - we are allowing fear and abuse to drive the knee-jerk lawmaking around privacy. The potential and ability to do huge social good with data is there now but is being subsumed under the headlong rush towards disinformation and commercial exploitation.

It sounds idealistic and naive to propose that social good might be a primary aim of our data exploitation, but with the pressures cities are increasingly facing (through congestion, increased demand and emissions) a more radical approach is surely overdue. It doesn’t have to be that way – trust can be earned. The reason that, since 2003, the Oyster card and now contactless payment in London is so hugely successful is because people trust it - and they trust Transport for London not to abuse it.

So let’s imagine a world where meaningful data is available and that you are able to derive intelligence from it - how will you use that? Central to the answer is how that process and those objectives are communicated to people – who are ultimately the source of the data. If it is only being used to make abstract, reactive decisions (as opposed to real-time) then a major trick is being missed and sub-optimal outcomes will result. Use the intelligence to begin predicting behaviour and suddenly, real possibilities open up.  Take, for example, Mastercard’s initiative in Chicago where travel pricing is adjusted to respond to demand and to even out usage of transport infrastructure. Imagine being able to do that across all modes, so usage is constantly optimised.

The ‘holy grail’ must be to gather data responsibly, and be thoroughly transparent about its use. Great examples already happening include Velocia, Miami’s app that rewards people for using any mode - or none at all - rather than relying on car travel. Further, Uber and Lyft have introduced ‘frequent user’ rewards programmes, which are now starting to spread to public transit – BART in San Francisco introduced a trial of ‘BART Perks’ to reward people for using the network at less congested times. And Contra Costa in California introduced Miles to encourage switching modes altogether.

Everything connected

At the outset, it needs to be decided who holds the data? And who does the interpretation and conversion from raw data to actionable intelligence? It cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise a case-by-case business model that recognises the value of each contribution and the benefit to the providers of each of the relevant services.

In the smart city, everything is connected - vehicles, infrastructure, people – and we are already a long way down that track. But are we really doing all that we could with that capability? If you understand what is happening - and / or very likely to happen - all over your city’s transit network and you can instantly communicate information based on that to individuals who have already told you what is important to them, you can help them make the best choices for themselves, for the under-pressure network, for the city - and for each other.

So whether you are trying to make the most of an existing, sometimes creaking infrastructure, or if you are the transport czar of a sparkling new urban landscape with a blank canvas to paint on, the principles are really the same.

  • Define your strategy and use that to inform your policy-making - then pursue the technology and innovation to make it happen.
  • Be aware of the trends and what city dwellers are using - and be ready to exploit trending technology if it supports your strategy - but otherwise only invest in the technology that takes you closer to your strategic goals.
  • Implement a data policy and be bold and rigorous in enforcing it to earn trust.
  • Make sure the controlling mind is in place at the outset and has the tools and authority to make the far-reaching decisions which will be necessary.
  • Fight for the responsible use of data - be entirely transparent in showing people that if they knowingly and voluntarily give up data about themselves, they will receive something truly useful and beneficial in return.

Martin Howell is head of transport markets, Worldline UK and Ireland