Unsurprisingly, smart cities are high on the agenda at CES this year, with a dedicated smart city showcase focused on bringing this most utopian of ideas to life. According to Navigant Research, we can expect to see a global market for smart city solutions and services of $97.9 billion in 2026. The development of smart cities is a global phenomenon, with Europe leading the way in terms of the sheer number of projects underway.

Urban centres are increasingly hard to manage and monitor, and yet there is a greater desire to manage our environments to reduce pollution and the knock-on health issues, to ease the congestion that makes so many of our cities nearly impossible to traverse and yes, to attempt to ensure a peaceful and crime free community.

The issue of using technology to ensure public safety can be a contentious one. For many, facial recognition technology is still the stuff of dystopian movie nightmares and yet it is being used in many benign ways that simply feel helpful. Take LG’s ThinQ AI solution that is using facial recognition software to interpret facial traits to adjust the cabin temperature or music volume to ensure drivers don’t nod off at the wheel. We may all agree that is a good thing, but when how comfortable are we with the idea that our city can monitor not just our whereabouts but our moods too?

So much has been written about the potential of smart cities, that idea of optimising the intersection of technology and society, and, in general, I am a fan. However, too little is being said about the role of society in setting up smart cities.

Citizens should be active partners in their community, and while the technology can enable that, there will also need to be a higher degree of inclusion and ownership than we sometimes see in our cities today. For example, the UK app FixMyStreet allows citizens to easily report potholes in their area to the local council in the hope of speeding up repairs. It is a step on the way to us all becoming integrated data nodes on a city-wide network designed to control, manage and improve our cities. That may necessitate a change in behaviour for us smart city-zens.

Of course, smart cities are only truly possible thanks to the advances in AI, big data and connectivity.  And of the three, connectivity is the most essential. All the data in the world can be generated (and at Intel’s keynote yesterday we learned that the average person will generate 1.5GB of data in one day alone, while a smart factory would be capable of generating one petabyte of data per day – equivalent to the daily output of 700,000 people) but without the connectivity to share, communicate and analyse it then it is, at best, just data.

5G is set to be the connective fibre that allows us to create smart communities and environments that connect information from the individual, the healthcare provider, the governing body, the factory and the car. With trials underway and more and more cities driving towards smart city status, it surely can’t be long before the showcase at today’s CES becomes a reality.

Sara is the Global Technology Practice Director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

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