The smart city: What lies behind the slogan?

The term 'smart city' has gained a lot of traction over recent months, with endless streams of so-called industry experts preaching the benefits of going smart to just about anyone who'll listen.

But what lies behind the buzzwords? Do citizens need to become more intelligent? Does everything need to be interconnected? ITProPortal recently sat down with Philippe Sajhau, the vice president of IBM's Smarter Cities division in France, to gain a clearer insight into what it means to become smarter, and why it is apparently so essential to the future of living.

According to Sajhau, smart cities are precisely as important as these experts claim they are. There are multiple aspects to a smart city, but everything ultimately boils down to the improvement of life quality. However, that doesn't mean that the world now has an excuse to act more selfish. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Boosting the health of the environment is central to the concept of smart cities, translating into the lowering of carbon dioxide emissions and rare resource consumption. As our immense struggle with discovering and promoting alternative forms of fuel demonstrates, this is no mean feat. But thanks to the rise of big data and analytics, it is now easier than ever to monitor our progress, no matter how quick or slow.

"[Through data collection and analytics tools] we are now able to manage in a different way the data that we can capture from the city, to bring new information for the citizens and try to develop new usage to really improve [life quality]," said Sajhau.

However, analytics is just one part of a complex process.

Sajhau says that smart cities comprise several distinct layers. Firstly, data has to be captured from any functional device – a nod to the much-heralded but still widely misunderstood Internet of Things – and then transferred to a single location. In order to do this in real-time, advanced and reliable telecommunications infrastructure is required. Therefore, it is crucial that the rollout of superfast broadband and 4G is sped up.

Furthermore, a platform is required for the collection of all of this information. Sajhau here points out IBM's own Intelligent Operations Centre which, in Big Blue's own words, "provides an executive dashboard to help city leaders gain insight into various aspects of city management." Only once these processes are in place can businesses, universities and startups fully utilise this data in order to truly innovate and help improve society.

However, the government is a key player in the introduction of such a major system, and can either make it or break it. For example, Sajhau says that IBM signed a major research and development project in Montpellier over a year ago, but is still waiting to learn from the authorities about which kinds of business models to use and which bodies need to finance which areas.

In Sajhau's eyes, slow action from leaders can be very detrimental, since it takes away the freedom for investigation and testing. "I think it's really important that the government helps the local government to develop experimentation more rapidly," he said

Fortunately, this disparity between the national government and local authorities does not seem to be a phenomenon that afflicts everyone. In fact, Sajhau believes that the UK's model is one worthy of imitation. A few months ago, the UK government granted the city of Glasgow £23 million for researching how to improve its systems.

Sajhau sees this as a really important step in the formation of smart cities, since it shows real, tangible intent. "I think we are now in the step of experimentation and stopping just to talk."