Forget intelligent cities – how about a more intelligent planet?

Forget intelligent cities – how about a more intelligent planet?

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

The year is 1750 – just before the industrial revolution. The overall population of the UK is around 6.5m. London has a population of 675,000: the second most populated city is the sea port of Bristol, with 45,000.

Roll on to 1850, when the industrial revolution has passed its peak. The UK population is now 26m. London has a population of over 2.5m. Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield have all overtaken Bristol, all with populations of over 150,000. Whereas London has remained at around 10% of the country’s population, the next 5 cities have moved from being around 2% of the population to around 6%.

The transformation of the northern cities pulled in people from the outlying areas. Moving to the cities ‘paved with gold’ was seen as the way to become rich via working in the new mills. What it really led to was the London that moved from Hogarth to Dickens, and northern cities where malnutrition, illness and the poor houses led to high rates of death in these expanding, coal-fired conurbations. The countryside suffered – there were fewer workers available to work in the fields, and this led to less fresh food being available to feed the growing population of the cities, leading to diseases such as rickets and scurvy. Even where workers remained outside of the cities, they were increasingly pulled in to working down the mines to fuel the growth of the cities.

Is an equivalent happening as technology creates the digital revolution?

The wrong focus
The focus to date has been on the intelligent city. This has a degree of sense, in that it provides constraints around a vision. Those creating the intelligent city can focus on specific boundaries, a specific population of people and specific desired outcomes. However, if the desired value of the intelligent city is forthcoming, then that city becomes more attractive as a place to live than other cities, towns and villages around it. This has been seen in cities where hyperspeed internet has been introduced, and where integrated citizen services have improved accessibility of certain services. The massive growth of cities such as Pune in India (10-year population growth 40%) and Shenzhen in China (25%) shows how people are still being sucked in to high-growth centres.

London now has a population of around 8m – more than the whole UK population back in 1750. Even with massive improvements in technology, it is struggling – many organisations find that advertised internet speeds are rarely (if ever) achieved; housing costs are driving people to live outside the city and travel in; transport and utilities are struggling to cope with demand; homelessness is on the increase. London is far from being an intelligent city.
This is where the internet of things (IoT) may be able to help. Instead of focusing on an individual city, governments, organisations and communities should start to focus on citizens across the whole of the country, and even beyond. Each citizen has their own needs, whether they be a city banker or a country farmer. Prioritising one above the other leads to increasing friction and feelings of ‘us and them’ between individuals and groups. Providing a level playing field leads to a more cohesive community, which then leads to greater success as a country.

Better internet
As a starter, providing good levels of internet access to villages means that more people can work from these areas, so moving away from the large second home model that is prevalent in the UK. Many of these homes are empty for large parts of the year, meaning that few fully local businesses can survive. Enabling people to spend more time in the villages can revitalise such local businesses – the butchers, bakers and greengrocers, for example. This does not mean the government’s target of a minimum of 10Mb/s as a universal service offering (USO) by 2020 is going to help much.

The UK is already way down the global internet speed rankings. With some countries already working against USOs of 1Gb/s and some cities, such as Chattanooga in the US already stating a USO of 10Gb/s by 2030, 10Mb/s is looking a little like wet string and baked bean cans.

As consumers move increasingly to a digital economy, the need for faster broadband speeds is pressing. Sure – basic browsing, buying and information seeking can be done on 10Mb/s, but telephony, music, video conferencing and HD TV streaming will be constrained by such speeds. 5G could help here by providing high speed connectivity without the need for dependence on ageing copper and aluminium infrastructure.
The broader use of the internet of things (IoT) also needs good connectivity. Farmers can use IoT devices on their farms to optimise the use of the value chains from the farm to the fork – but the data being gathered by thousands of devices on the farm needs to be dealt with adequately. Some of that can be managed through intelligent filtering at the farm itself, but true high speed internet will help enormously in the capabilities to aggregate, analyse and report on the data.

Public transport can also benefit from such connectivity – citizens can ensure that full itineraries are created and managed in real time, linking buses, taxis, trains and so on lowering the needs for owning cars. Indeed, as autonomous vehicles come through, the need for solid connectivity to clouds where the vehicles can exchange and act on data becomes a necessity.

The right skills at the right time
Identifying skills as required in real time can also be better enabled. Need someone to come to you and fix your printer? Maybe there is a mobile engineer not too far away at the moment – GPS tracking and mobile work ticketing can make it that the expert can be there in a matter of minutes or hours. Likewise, need someone to fix your machinery on the farm? Don’t wait until tomorrow – either have the IoT pre-identify the problem before it becomes a major issue and call in an engineer to swap things out, or get the nearest engineer on site as soon as possible – without needing to pick up the phone.

The whole of the UK can benefit from an IoT based around better connectivity – it can move from these too highly focused intelligent city projects to an intelligent, and far more productive, country model. If countries would then start to use connectivity in a positive manner to break down the bureaucratic and nationalistic walls between nations, then we may – just may – be able to move toward the intelligent planet.

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