How Can Digital Technologies Help Streamline a City’s Infrastructure?

As cities are facing many challenges such as urban sprawl, traffic congestion and safety, and transportation accessibility, it is increasingly becoming important for urban planners to provide smart solutions while making efficient use of available assets, resources and infrastructure. The main question is how these smart solutions will help citizens: will they improve their quality of life and provide a clean and sustainable environment?

Estimates say that intelligent traffic management can increase the capacity of existing roads by up to 30 percent. In terms of investment this means 30 percent less roads need to be built in the future and instead of widening roads and building new ones, the existing roads can be used much longer providing the same service level as today.

This can only be achieved by making traffic more efficient (more cars/minute per lane) and safe (less accidents and interruptions) and handling planned and unplanned exceptions (events, accidents, detours) in a more “intelligent” way.

Adding intelligent cars to the equation gains could increase dramatically as estimated by researchers at Columbia University saying that 100% adoption of the technologies could lead to an increase of road capacity by 273 percent. Even if we consider this as a very optimistic view it shows that significant introducing new technologies and connecting systems can achieve significant improvements.

Involving other modes of transport like trains or light rail, bicycles, scooters and walking, even larger improvements are possible. There are already many services available, which provide real-time traffic information and calculate alternative routes and usage of transportation facilities. These ideally offer end to end pricing and billing, which currently is a big challenge due to legal obstacles, missing standards for information exchange, competing business models, complexity of processes and data processing and the large number of stakeholders involved.

However, there are already some providers who offer these services, but are still lacking the critical mass and coverage to provide a convenient end-to-end service (please see examples below).

The legal framework required for the implementation of smart city technologies

The legal framework has to fulfill some basic needs:

– protect personal data and provide data privacy

– ensure minimum level of data security and prevent vulnerabilities that endanger service delivery

– find the right balance between data protection and data openness

– offer flexibility to allow for new data flows and usages for the benefit of the user.

Since national borders do usually not limit the flow of information, the consequences have to be considered. As we currently see a trend that large IT service providers build data centers in different regions to offer processing of the data within local legislative regions, it still has to be discussed how the compliance with local law can be ensured due to the virtual character of the data and data flow.

Regarding the protection of consumers a national or regional government agency assessing data usage and business models based on processing of personal data and information should be considered. This will not only investigate and set security standards, but it will also set standards for privacy in digital business models and assess the impact of data usage on the informational self-determination.

Finally, the legal framework has to be discussed and adjusted according to the changing perception of data privacy and the requirements of citizens.

What will a digital city look like

A digital city will be inclusive, knowledge driven, sustainable, resource efficient, foster innovation and always strive to leverage digital technology to improve the livability for its citizens.

A digital city will anticipate the needs of its citizens, helping them to provide information when it is needed. It will be situation aware and make suggestions for services as needed and depending on individual personal preferences. It will sense and anticipate the needs of the city as a whole (for example, transportation, energy and health care) and the individual (for example, food, entertainment and health care). It will organize the services and processes in a way that minimizes the impact on its performance goals and is aligned with its overall strategy (policies, guidelines, vision) whilst being responsive to the needs of its citizens.

Finally, each individual will be able to spend more time with things they love to do versus disliked everyday duties. This will of course bear some risks in terms of lack of exercising manual tasks and moving around less, which may lead to an unhealthy life style. Fortunately, this can be overcome by new exercises being provided using 3D virtual reality gear and some mechanical equipment for example to simulate flying a delta-glider.

Smart city technologies from around the world

On a large scale, the city of Malta was facing the challenge of water scarcity during summer due to many tourists visiting the island. Since there was not enough water on the island, they planned to expand desalination capacity to overcome the water shortage. This would have required an additional power plant too to provide enough electrical power for the desalination process.

Fortunately before doing so, they assessed the real need of water (in terms of billed water) and compared it to the quantity produced in the desalination plant. This revealed that there was a significant quantity lost somewhere in the system. So they decided to look for the losses and understand where the water went by using smart meters. Once they figured out where the water was lost, they fixed those “leaks” and were able to provide enough water even during the high season in summer.

This saved them investing in a desalination plant and an extra power. Subsequently, they are able to monitor the water flow much better in the future and predict demand and collect revenues based on real-time information.

Hamburg combines its various transportation systems in one umbrella service platform allowing travelers to choose the right mode of transportation on the fly. The platform, which of course can be accessed with an app, provides choices of different means of transportation in real time and allows to charge for them right through the app. Currently the platform offers bus, light rail, car sharing, taxi, rental car, bike sharing. This is going to be expanded and may involve scooters, pedelecs (pedal electric cycle) and many other new modes of transportation.

Hamburg Tourism offers an app, which provides location based audio guides, trip planning using real time public transport schedules and online booking.

The port of Hamburg is #2 in Europe and #14 of the world in terms of container turnover. Since the area of the port is limited by the borders of Hamburg increasing its capacity is only possible by increasing its productivity. Providing detailed information about each vessel is a key element to achieve this. The Hamburg Port Monitor provides information for all people involved in handling and moving vessels in real time and on various devices as needed. So it allows the largest container ships on earth to safely enter the port and maneuver to their berth.

A company based in Finland provides automated sensor driven waste collection services. Reducing cost by picking up waste containers when needed and optimizing routes according to fill levels of waste containers.

To create a modern and sustainable mobility, a startup launched the first scooter sharing worldwide in Hamburg. Like car sharing scooters are located using an app and the whole rental process is managed through the app. Scooter sharing is just another piece in the puzzle for a diverse mobility scheme offering a great variety of transportation options in Hamburg.

A technological startup launched an app, which combines all of the above mobility solutions in one app, but not limited to Hamburg.

In the end, having talked so much about technology, putting people first (not technology) should be the key criteria when embarking on a smarter city journey. This has to be applied to the participation process (how much digital do we need?) and the solutions which are being developed.

What does it mean for you to live in a smart city? Share your ideas in our comment section


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Understanding the Obstacles for the Digital Transformation of the City

The role of big data and citizens are becoming increasingly important in achieving sustainable mobility and digitally transforming the city. They could help solve some of the most significant challenges that cities are currently facing such as traffic, infrastructure, pollution etc. However, urban planners are facing various obstacles when it comes to data and also involving citizens during their planning process. The main questions are: How can urban planners make use of the abundant data in an efficient way for the benefit of citizens? How can they take advantage of citizens’ suggestions in digitally transforming the city?

Urban planners usually are facing challenges related to:

– data awareness: which data is available and where?

– data access: how to make data available and connect to the sources?

– data standards: what does the data mean, how is it organized?

– data security and privacy: how should data be protected?

– awareness of opportunities related to digital technologies: what is possible and sustainable?

– missing acceptance of digital solutions and the data needs involved

Usually data is broadly distributed amongst the city systems, which are not connected and which rarely follow any standards in terms of the data formats and interfaces used (especially across service domains, for example, transportation and energy). Additionally, information often is hidden in unstructured data and it is hard to understand this data and make it suitable for processing.

Subsequently a very restrictive and sometimes prohibitive management of data security and privacy prevents urban planners from exploring new ways of using data for the benefit of the citizens. Of course data privacy and security laws have to be followed, but usually there is some flexibility how to implement these in the real life.

Considering the required physical data connections, it is sometimes difficult to fund and build the required infrastructure (for example citywide WLAN) only for one application to start with.

Usually the “killer application” which allows shared infrastructures to be fully funded by the first service delivered through it is missing. This requires funding models for shared infrastructures, which help to make the initial investment and share the returns from future services to pay back the initial investment.

Finally, many technological advances are not widely known and/or not considered due to existing (legacy) industry standards and technology and processes already in place. Innovation often requires radical changes of thinking and approaches.

This is specifically difficult in the public sector due to legal constraints and government processes, because they are by default not designed for speed and radical change.

In the recent past, establishing innovative spaces to explore new city services and solutions has become popular. Maker hubs are being built and startup accelerators, specifically focusing on Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart City solutions are emerging.

All of these are offering opportunities to experiment with technology and testing services for the smart city before running through tedious administrative processes and demanding large investments from the city.

Involving and inviting citizens to build their “digital city”

Acceptance of digital solutions for the city can only be built by involving citizens early in the process and making them understand what the risks and benefits of the new solutions and technologies are.

Direct interaction and feedback with citizens through social media and direct digital channels provided by apps (for example, voting, requests) help to better understand citizens’ needs and provide an opportunity to involve them directly. Digital platforms can be used to orchestrate processes of co-creation and foster innovation, getting a sense of the citizen sentiment and making processes of urban planning and city development transparent for the citizens.

However, the digital interaction with citizens needs to be embedded into a series of online and offline interactions to facilitate the different needs of citizens and to leverage the benefits of both worlds. This has to be tailored according to the topic to be dealt with.

It is critically important that enough professional expertise regarding urban planning as well as digital solutions is being injected. Furthermore, the suggestions from citizens must be taken seriously and they have to know about this by getting timely information.

The process of involving citizens in planning a digital city

Taking the ideas from an offline workshop, sharing them online, and allowing citizens to comment on these would be a first step. Curating the input and synthesizing a new vision of the new city could be the next one. Regrouping and running focused expert workshops may follow to merge the input from the citizens’ domain expertise in city development and urban planning for specific areas of urban development.

Structuring the results and facilitating further iterations of offline and online debate will then be used to shape the results and get a final set of ideas and suggestions. Ideally the whole process from generating the first ideas to their implementation will be made visible and frequent interaction with the citizens will be possible along the way.

In some cases it may even be possible to offer some funding for the ideas and let people decide which ideas should get funded (lastly as a substantial part of the municipal budget planning as practiced for Lichtenberg or using crowd funding to collect funds).Finally, it is recommended to embed all the activities into a strategic planning process which itself consults the citizens. Since these processes are complex and require thorough planning, experts for facilitating and managing the process are required to get meaningful and sustainable results.

Leave a comment: Did you ever face these obstacles? Have you experienced good practices of citizen participation? What do you think is required to successfully leverage digital technologies for the benefit of the city and its citizens?


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

The Anticipative City: Leveraging Data to Understand Needs of Citizens in a Smart City

People have the opportunity to move from a reactive city to an anticipative city. Leveraging the data becoming increasingly available through millions of intelligent devices and systems in the city will allow us to create new insights into city dynamics. Predicting demand and adjusting supply provides an incredible opportunity for cities to become more sustainable and resilient. Besides these fundamental advantages, tailoring city services to the individual needs of citizens becomes possible and offers richer experiences making our cities more livable.

Assessing citizens’ needs

In the past, citizens’ needs were estimated by modeling situations, taking snap shots of current usage and applying experience from previous projects (for example, estimating capacity needs for public transport or roads). Additionally legislation prescribed how much and what had to be offered to the citizens for some services like water, electricity and phone lines. Of course these could be only rough estimate of the real needs.

The data available today can help to very much better understand the needs of citizens by:

– sensing the actual utilization of resources and services

– allowing citizens to customize and share their service needs

– predicting needs in terms of capacities and services

– simulating situations and assessing impacts of changes in the city

– providing information and requests directly from citizens

Additionally the interface to the citizen is becoming mobile and available everywhere, so that in nearly every situation the information needed to improve services and offerings to citizens can be gathered.

This starts by simply knowing the geographical position of people (not necessarily each individual) and knowing the availability of the resources required for a service to be delivered. A good example is an intermodal transportation service being provided by an app. It has access to information about the resources (trains, cars, bicycles, scooters, etc.) and can be fed with personal preferences of the traveler to provide the best service available.

Doing this for a large number of travelers will provide insight into their traveling behavior related to many parameters like weather, time of day, location, season and many more. This will also allow to offer information to other services like energy and traffic management, which are able to react and adjust to the anticipated demand leading to optimized citywide services across service domains.

Finally predicting demand and constraints for service delivery based on patterns, trends, events and needs derived from big data and citizens’ direct feedback will significantly improve service quality and sustainability.

Human digital interface: connecting to citizens

Collecting all this data and interacting with the citizen may sound cumbersome and time consuming for citizens and service providers. The good news is – it is not. A lot of the information is being collected automatically from the intelligent devices all over the city and around the citizen, but the key driver for further convenience and less distraction for the user will be improvements in the human digital interface.

There will be sensors and actors allowing for direct physical and visual interaction being integrated into the environment as well as into the smart devices people will use. A few examples are:

– natural language processing (machines transform spoken language into text and vice versa)

– cognitive computing (machines “understand” the context and meaning of natural language)

– haptic feedback provided by surfaces and physical infrastructure

– motion detection and 3D scanning

– mobile devices providing health information collected from body sensors and wearables

– displays will be available everywhere be it virtual (for example, holographic, Virtual Reality (VR)) or on all kind of surfaces

This will improve the human digital interface significantly helping machines and humans = citizens to interact in a much more “natural” way.

Tailored services to meet citizens’ needs

Given all these possibilities, a thorough understanding of the data flows and the data processing is required to design, develop and operate the information systems needed. Dealing with data privacy concerns to prevent misuse and theft of information is mandatory and requires a continuous dialogue between the city government and the parties involved.

Intelligent systems will optimize citizen services according to the policies and priorities city authorities and society will define. Individual requirements of the citizens will be considered helping to provide tailored services for their individual needs. This will help us to make better use of the resources available, live safer, live healthier and make our cities a more livable place to be.

Leave a comment: What do you think, how can cities and citizens benefit from the vast amount of data available? Which examples do you know about?


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.