Gráinne Watson on smart cities with citizen centric solutions

The concept of ‘smart cities’ has burgeoned as local and national governments try to address the impact of climate change, recycling targets, urban regeneration, transport congestion and economic investment.

Dr Gráinne Watson is a Senior Innovation Strategist at Fujitsu and spoke to me ahead of her session at Thursday’s Big Data Belfast conference. The annual event looks at innovation and data across a range of sectors, including health, finance, insurance and smart cities.

She explained to me some of the challenges that feed into smart cities programmes.

“Smart cities come out of two things. By 2030 we’ll have two times more impact on the Earth than it was created for. We’ll have 43 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions and 8.3 billion people with an urban proportion of about 51%. So out of necessity, smart cities are needed. Also it is about enabling people to live better lives, having creative and smart solutions to make it easier to live and work in places, to make it easier to get around them and to make them sustainable.”

The Belfast Agenda sets out ambitious goals of growing the city’s population by 70,000 and increasing the number of people working in the city by 50,000 by the year 2030. The community planning vision also wants to reduce the gap in life expectancy between the poorest and richest parts of the city.

Belfast has also developed and published a Smart Cities framework.

The “smart cities” concept is now 25 years old and has gone through a number of iterations. It’s beginnings were technology-driven with companies offering solutions to improve a city. Gráinne explained that the second iteration (“2.0”) of the model switched the emphasis to being city-led by local government leading the use of technology to make their city smart.

“The third one – which is what Belfast are going for – is that ‘we’ the citizens will change our city working with technology companies and city government.”

Out of their framework, Belfast City Council are examining opportunities for SMEs to deliver smart city pilot projects that build upon tourist visitor experience, encouraging use of public transport, improving car parking, a leisure passport that works across the city, and predicting anti-social behaviour amongst areas.

Gráinne’s pitch for Belfast as a smart city includes:

“In the short term I would enable IoT [Internet of Things] in all new builds. We’re building lots of new building. Why aren’t there sensors in them. If we’re building for the future we need to build to last. Houses, offices any infrastructure: IoT sensors should be normal.

“For medium term goals I’d look to connect existing things. Taxis, buses and police cars can register and transmit their location [helping understand congestion as well as service provision]. Gardens and parks can use technology to regulate lights and energy usage. Trouble spots [with anti-social behaviour] can be detected using data pulled off social media.”

Long term, it’s about embedding technology awareness in the population. Belfast is not going to be one of the predicted 41 megacities (population in excess of 10 million) in which 9% of the world population are expected to live by 2030.

“As a small city we need to find talent and finding talent means that we need to educate everybody in technology.”

Personally, Gráinne would like to see “coding taught in the same way we teach English language so that everyone understands it … If you don’t understand the fundamentals of it … how are we going to create these smart solutions and build a city that can last?”

Her own educational experience benefited from studying a wide range of subjects during her time as an undergraduate at St Andrews and years spent as a postgraduate at Stanford. Adaptability and knowledge across a range of disciples is necessary to create smart interdisciplinary solutions.

“Not everyone is going to work in tech, I understand that. However, tech is the bedrock upon which everything will be built going forward. So our young people need to have an understanding of it. So coming back I wanted to help with skills, I wanted to be part of a Northern Ireland that could grow using tech, that would be vibrant and would have young people thinking that they could change the world.”

Back after years studying and working away, Gráinne notices that “Northern Ireland has transformed”.

“When I left none of the cool stuff that is now here was here. There was no Catalyst Inc [the new name for NI Science Park] and programmes like Generation Innovation did not exist.”

Ulster University’s Cognitive Analytics Research Lab (CARL) is another new local development which builds on UU’s history of technical expertise in data analytics and legacy of applying it across domains of health, finance, manufacturing, media, energy, public policy and civic society. They’re demonstrating their new Alzheimer’s diagnosis protoytpe at the conference on Thursday.

Fujitsu’s emphasis on “human centric innovation … enabling humans using technology to live better lives” was part of what drew Gráinne to join the world’s third oldest IT company.

The company ran a pilot in a Spanish city in which the cost of public transport journeys reduced the more frequently an individual used public transport. Their usage data drove the pricing.

Consumers benefited from cheaper travel. Transport suppliers had access to better data on where people were going and when to help them meet the demand for routes. And it helped local authorities address their carbon emission targets. It also introduced a shared out accountability across customers, suppliers and government.

“That’s what good smart city solutions are. It’s about everybody together. If all the responsibility sits on one person that’s not really doable. But if everybody’s involved and everybody’s getting something out of that then it’s useful. It has to work for everybody. ”

One of the challenges to smart city initiatives is about the use of data. Cities must make sure that if they have data that it is used and weighed up and applied to situations to the benefit of the citizen. It must be used in a citizen centric way.

“If you’re looking at citizen centric solutions, then more people are likely to use them [with the knock on commercial benefit]. Business and data are not mutually exclusive. Getting the value out of the data can mean getting what works for the citizen, and if it works they’ll use it.”

Tickets are still available for the Big Data Belfast conference which takes place in Titanic Belfast on Thursday 19 October.

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