Published on in TransportDigital Transformation

As the debate around what constitutes a smart city evolves, the conversation has moved from modes of transportation and the latest technology to more fundamental discussions around connectivity.

We’re facing some big questions:

  • How do we make sure every citizen is connected to the services and advantages the city has to offer?
  • How do we make sure existing technology is accessible to everyone?
  • And with increasing amounts of data being created (set to skyrocket further with the introduction of 5G), how do we balance innovators’ need for public data against the digital rights of the individual citizen?

We explored all of these questions, and many more, in the second episode in our Fujitsu podcast series, ‘Urban Mobility of the Future – Are we ready?’.

Private tech in the public interest

Every day, new mobility related technology is being released and utilised by an increasingly savvy public. Smartphone ride sharing apps have become incredibly popular in a short amount of time: 2019 saw Uber complete more than 15 million trips daily. However, it has also created chaos in a number of countries, especially among traditional taxi drivers from which they have taken market share.

These apps are a prime example of an innovation which has been adopted by citizens but hasn’t been integrated into the larger transportation ecosystem. Taxi hailing apps have afforded a new level of connectivity and ease to certain customers – but at a price greater than the standard fare. To feel the benefit of ride-sharing apps, you need to have a smart phone and live in an area covered by the service.

Speaking on this month’s podcast, Simon Reed, TfL Head of Technology and Data, Surface Transport, said: “When people start to talk about mobility as a service, what they are saying is, expand that [ride hailing app] model out to include all sorts of things; from premium services at the top to public services at the bottom. And the trick is, getting that mix right.”

Younger generations have come to expect an incredibly high standard of personalisation and convenience when it comes to private sector services.

This means the majority of people struggle to understand why that level of ease doesn’t translate into public sector services.

To create truly smart cities, the public sector needs to observe the habits of the populace and strive to find ways to integrate existing private sector advancements into public offerings. And the only way they can really hope to do that is to incentivise the private sector to collaborate with them.

What to do with all this data?

To create a public transport ecosystem capable of keeping up with the innovations being created in the private sector, governments need to give these organisations a reason to collaborate. For example, in 2010, then Mayor of London Boris Johnson orchestrated the release of large amounts of TfL data through the London Datastore.

The datastore has a bounty of data related to the capital and “whether you’re a citizen, business owner, researcher or developer, the site provides over 700 datasets to help you understand the city and develop solutions to London’s problems”.

This release of data was pivotal to the creation of bike hire initiatives like the Barclays Cycle Hire. These schemes utilised TfL’s information to map out smarter bike routes around London and allow citizens to use their smart phones to find docking stations with relative ease.

The more we can aggregate information from multiple sources, the more efficient we can become. If we can layer commuter transportation data with data from healthcare and education institutions, we can build more accurate and dynamic pictures of the city. However, once we get into the general public’s data, more complex conversations around our digital rights come into play.

“I think what will win out with the consumer is the fact that people don’t really have a problem giving out their information if they can see a value out of it,” explained Reed. “Over time, people will become more relaxed about giving out data if they can see it’s interacting with something else and giving them a personal service”.

Attitudes towards privacy have changed significantly with the rise of recommendation engines and other personalisation tools. With the amount of data we create rising year on year, it may soon become untenable to ask every citizen to proactively consent every time their data is needed in the interest of innovation.

This may put increased pressure on governments to adequately regulate private companies and make sure that even if the public’s privacy concerns lessen, they will maintain the security of every citizen’s data. Also speaking on episode two of the podcast, DG Cities Telecoms lead, Noemí de Hevia Méndez thinks companies and governments need to work together to navigate these new ethical waters:

“I think that part of it is about transparency and part is about education. First off, the public, private and everyone in between need to be transparent about how the data is being used. The more the public can trust those processes, the more it will help us move forward in the ways we can use the data.

“But it is also about education; explaining to people that there are a minimum of rights and a minimum of safeguards that have been deployed to ensure their security. And also, how that data is going to benefit them in real life, in their day-to-day and in the things they do within the city.”

Connectivity means communication

Despite how hard it is becoming to please everyone in this, as Reed put it, “all about me society”, it has also become easier than ever to gather the opinions of the public.

For example, in this episode, DG Cities Project Officer, Arielle Vetro, spoke about a study they created while working on a project called Merge. They looked into how different demographics reacted to autonomous vehicles:

“We found that men of a certain age range and of a certain income are more receptive to autonomous vehicles than women of a certain age range and income,” explained Vetro.

She added that factors like whether the vehicle has a steward or not can also greatly influence a woman choice to use an autonomous car service. These are considerations many men may not consider when deploying a program like this, as it’s a perspective they are not privy to.

And once we start listening to as many voices from our cities, the more we will realise the many different things that can pose as barriers to accessibility, many of which many of us would never have even thought of.

“I remember seeing some woman with a pram,” Vetro recounted. “And she was on the cobblestones and…I’m from quite a new build area so we don’t have many cobblestones. And even though it’s aesthetically pleasing and beautiful and you want to retain the history and culture, all of that can still present a barrier, stopping someone from getting from point A to point B.”

When reduced to the standard of ‘accessibility for all’, creating a smart city takes on a new hue. The fact that a blind person still can’t make it across the city on one ticket or without special help means there is still a lot of work to do before we can consider ourselves a truly smart city.

To learn more, tune in to our podcast series, Urban Mobility of the Future – Are we ready? to find out about Fujitsu’s capabilities within the ever-evolving transport industry.

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