As 2018 begins, the following are my highly unreliable, wet-finger-in-the-air guesses for what might happen in the smart cities arena, for better and worse, over the coming year.
As a general prediction, while there is no single rationale for a smart city, certain themes such as efficiency and cost, environmental impact, and the ever-intangible quality of “livability” have historically predominated. They will continue to so, simply because there is no reason for them to change – they reflect common-sense concerns that cities and their citizens continue to have. However, as smart cities invest in the underlying IOT and analytics technology, I predict that two other goals will increasingly join them.
The first is resilience, because of the growing acknowledgement that this is highly connected with environmental impact, and because as urbanisation grows there is more at risk from adverse weather or seismic events. The second is social equity, as cities seek to do their bit to address the economic imbalances that have underpinned the rise of nationalism and nativism around the world.
And now to some more specific predictions.
These are my guesses as to some 2018 developments that smart cities advocates will welcome.
While there are certainly plenty of smaller cities that were early adopters in the smart cities movement, to date, smart cities project have been more the preserve of larger cities. I would like to believe that in 2018, as smart city products and solutions mature and become both better packaged and cheaper, the center of gravity in the sector will start to shift as more midsized and smaller cities around the world adopt IOT technologies, whether on a proof of concept basis or something at greater scale. Their motives will be as above. Straws in the wind that lead me to make this prediction include the numbers of smaller cities that I have observed to be undertaking pilots, especially in areas like smart street lighting, smart parking, and other cost effective sensor technologies in the IOT realm.
The water sector will finally start to arrive en masse at the smart cities party. With some honorable exceptions, the conservatism of the water sector is legendary. However, two things encourage me to predict that this will begin to change. Participation in several recent VC competitions for water start-ups, and conversations with numerous others, have shown me that the IOT and analytics are starting to find new interest from water sector buyers who increasingly “get it”; and major consulting engineering firms seem to be more actively promoting smart water management technologies to the water agencies and cities for whom they are trusted advisors.
Just as telcos like Verizon and AT&T are actively pursuing smart cities customers, the energy sector will begin en masse to enter the smart cities market. Much of smart grid is inherently also smart city technology; and energy utilities have been active in adjacent areas such as smart street lighting for awhile. However, I predict this interest will grow and expand, perhaps through non-regulated subsidiaries, to other business models that use the networking in AMI and street lights, and will come to include areas such as smart buildings and even some in home services. My evidence? In 2017, in my job with IBM I fielded an inquiry about smart cities from a utility every other week or so throughout the year. It is reasonable to anticipate that these inquiries will begin to become concerted action in 2018.
I may be sticking my neck out for this one, but I predict that blockchain will finally be used in a fully scaled-up smart cities project – that is, one that is not one of the many pilots or proofs of concept that one reads about. The momentum has been building for a while – surely now is the break-through year? Perhaps the most likely area for 2018 (given that this has been piloted for some while) is in enabling energy sales and micro-grid operation.
… And the Bad
While the following predictions will be downers, I nevertheless believe their likelihood in 2018:
Some AI enabled smart city system will malfunction causing major damage, injury, or catastrophe. Frost and Sullivan recently predicted this for AI and the IOT in general in 2018, and as smart cities are generally believed to be the fastest growing area of the IOT, it seems logical that the bad news might start here. It won’t matter that the system in question might be dramatically improving lives (or might actually be safer – think autonomous vehicles): attention will focus on the role of AI and the IOT, and set the smart cities cause back significantly. A scary rider to this may be that the system concerned may not in fact have malfunctioned – it may be operating as designed but the designer did not take into account all the possible eventualities.
There will be a cyberattack on piece of city infrastructure somewhere, that succeeds in doing significant, lasting, and publicly visible damage (and perhaps causes the injury or loss of life referred to above). This prediction is easy to make, because public infrastructure such as energy, water, and metro systems has been under attack for a while, aided and abetted by ancient, highly insecure control systems and sloppy security hygiene. The Ukraine energy system hack in 2016 is the most extreme example to date, but there will be others. Don’t just take my word for it – as for example recently reported by the BBC, the engineering majors are gearing up for the possibility too.
There will be a backlash against smart cities on grounds of privacy and perceived government overreach. This might come from anywhere: for example, public dislike of excess numbers of security cameras; an objection to technology that might be used to facilitate new or increased user charges such as smart water meters; some misconceived sale of municipal data about the public to a third party; some enforcement action that required data that everyone had supposed to be private; or just general disquiet about AI as a job killer, human race destroyer, etc. The precise vector is hard to spot in advance, but I feel gloomily confident that it will happen.
Time will surely tell if these predictions prove correct, and only time will tell what we can truly expect for the smart cities movement in 2018.
By Dr. Peter Williams is the Chief Technology Officer, Big Green Innovations, at IBM.