There are well over 100 smart cities globally, but Alphabet’s foray into the business still made the headlines in 2017. Many reasoned that an investment from Google’s parent company was a sign that smart cities were at a tipping point, even in privacy-aware western democracies.
In comparison, Alphabet’s recent withdrawal from the project was largely lost amidst the pandemic.
Toronto Quayside, a 12-acre waterfront development, was to be built “from the internet up”. At the start of 2019, only about 10% of Toronto residents opposed the project, but by the summer polls showed that opposition had become the majority view. In “Death of a Smart City”, Medium publication OneZero attributes the shift to “a groundswell of resistance, first among civil liberties activists, and then, eventually, among the ranks of Canada’s most prominent businesspeople, local civic leaders, and Toronto residents.”
This rapid turnaround in public opinion demonstrates an inherent and growing challenge to smart city developers: citizens are increasingly wary of giving up the data that smart cities need to run effectively.
These concerns add a new dimension to existing challenges familiar to urban innovators everywhere. The first is a lack of clear policy and regulatory frameworks, and digital skills within government The second is financial – while data monetisation was particularly controversial here, a lack of investable business models afflicts most smart city projects. Finally, there are myriad technological hurdles, from data governance to interoperability and cyber-security. Data ownership and use cuts across all three.
Addressing these challenges requires coordination across multiple stakeholders with different agendas – from various levels of government to a long, complicated range of suppliers and citizen groups. It’s unsurprising that success stories are few and far between.
But there is one area where technology can offer a clear path forward. It is time to look beyond the current playbook of solutions – like open data, data trusts, or promises that data will not be sold – and utilise new research methods which enable data to be used while robustly protecting privacy.
Addressing public concerns: Learning from data while respecting privacy
It’s encouraging that we now have a growing societal discussion on data governance and ethics. In the future, the emerging principles we see today will likely evolve into more mature frameworks that better reflect context – ie (a) what data is actually required to create valuable services, and (b) what new techniques can be used to protect privacy and wider concerns.
Stakeholders today are increasingly unwilling to share their private / confidential datasets. As a result, the most impactful data is now largely aggregated and hence of limited value. Much of open data is, effectively, closed.
Traditional data anonymisation techniques are not able to adequately protect the privacy of individuals whilst retaining high data utility. Such methods typically distort or remove important relationships within the data.
So, we need to proceed on a different basis. Faculty research has shown that it’s possible to create synthetic versions of sensitive data sets which retain substantial utility from the original datasets for downstream data analysis and modelling tasks. This opens up exciting new areas of opportunity while respecting privacy.
This offers the way forward for both the private and crucially, the public sector. Many countries have legal restrictions on sharing datasets even between different government departments. Using such techniques would substantively expand the types of public services that could be built or provided – be it in transport, energy, water, waste, or other municipal services.
The post-COVID-19 future
Before the pandemic there was a growing realisation that making existing ‘dumb’ cities work better offers more benefit to residents than starting from scratch. With geopolitics lending a helping hand, investment flowed into smart mobility and smart energy, and the underlying infrastructure of fibre and 5G that supports them. Megacities with high population densities benefitted the most.
The pandemic has altered reality. Our new, more sporadic travel needs mean traffic congestion is a much less pressing concern than reducing household energy bills. Financial incentives for more balanced regional development certainly appear stronger than before.
As we look towards the future, it is important that we continue to adapt. Toronto Quayside is an important milestone in the evolving smart city narrative. Though marked by financial and technological challenges like previous projects, it was ultimately a lack of public trust that killed the project. But this doesn’t mean the end for smart cities; if we take the right lessons, this could be the key to a new, more secure, more trusted generation of smart cities.