Published on in TransportDigital Transformation

In recent years, the concept of smart cities has been broached by everyone from politicians to data scientists. To the layman, the idea that we should be able to string together technological advancements into one hyperconnected utopia seems like common sense. A city where we can bask in the clean, environmentally-conscious atmosphere of a small village and still access the economic opportunity and convenience of a large metropolis.

And flying cars, of course.

Smart cities are one of the many promises we expect to come to fruition now that we are on the frontier of a new industrial revolution; one fuelled by AI, green energy and…3D printers. According to economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin, every industrial revolution in history has had three main components:

  • A form of communication
  • A source of energy
  • And a form of mobility

With the internet integrated into our personal and professional lives and the costs of green energy like solar power plummeting in recent years, it can seem like we are on track to achieve it. However, despite all the hype around autonomous vehicles, the transportation and mobility networks in major cities haven’t evolved at nearly the same pace.

Speaking on our podcast, Urban Mobility of the Future – Are we ready? Future Transport Catapult CEO, Paul Campion said, “a time traveller from 100 years ago would pretty much recognise the UK transport networks of today. There are a few more cars and they are a bit shinier but basically, there are cars, buses, trains, planes and boats and they still operate in very similar ways. I got here today by train and they gave me a paper ticket.”

London has made incredible strides forward since the first industrial revolution – which it started. But if the city hopes to be a champion of the upcoming one, and accomplish the Mayor of London’s ambitious goal of making this the “greenest city in Europe”, we’ll have to start reimagining our transport networks.

Transport versus tech

We need to do more than just consider what makes a city ‘smart’ but also continuously ask ourselves ‘how we keep citizens at the core of every choice we make?’

“For me,” explained Rikesh Shah, Head of Commercial Innovation at the TfL, “the focus needs to be, how can emerging technology and data help solve some of the challenges we have for our city, looking forward to the next 15-20 years.”

“So, that could be area of transport, environment, housing or security. But, rather than just thinking about the technology and data, it’s about looking at the outcomes that support the goals we are trying to achieve that make London, in my case, a better place.”

For example, very few of us ever really want to travel; it’s a derived demand. We simply want to be places. So, simply integrating newer technologies into our pre-existing transportation networks won’t magically render us a smart city. According to Kim Smith, Head of Mobility at Digital Greenwich, the two main priorities of most passengers is simply journey time reliability and ease of transfer. Citizens just want to get from A to B as easily as possible.

To a certain extent, London has achieved a degree of seamless travel with its Oyster card system. Instead of getting multiple tickets at various prices and points, Oyster fares are automatically calculated at the end of the day and are based on the start and end points of a journey, with a daily price cap.

However, Oyster is limited to zones 1-9 and doesn’t cover every public transport service used by the city’s inhabitants.  And while some of the newer transport services such as the High Speed train line will eventually integrate into the Oyster card system, the conversations and policies around new mobility technologies simply aren’t happening fast enough.

Drone technology is an example of a piece of tech which has suffered from a lack of policy direction, and everyone from businesses to air passengers have paid the price. Likewise, a study conducted by Merge Greenwich simulated effects of an autonomous vehicle ride share  service would have on the city if introduced in 2025. It concluded that unless it was fully integrated into the public transport system offered, it would end up extracting from it.

Therefore, it’s important to consider the outcomes we want from technology. To solve our transport problems, we have to do more than simply throw tech at it – we need to be more imaginative.

Redefining mobility

When imagining the future of urban transportation in London and its evolution into a smart city, we need to shift our thinking of what a smart city looks like.

Copenhagen is currently one of the front runners for the European smart city crown, aiming to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. It has several paths to achieving this goal such as hosting 250 smart city start-ups and giving them free access to public data like congestion and climate change levels.

However, one of the biggest reasons the city is on track to accomplish this goal is the fact that almost 40% of all its citizens commute to work, school or university by bicycle. Unlike the majority of London’s cycling incentives which revolve around incentivising cycling’s health advantages, Copenhagen’s strategy was all about making the city the best place in the world to cycle. This includes everything from widening cycle lane tracks which helped increase safety levels and reduced travel times, to expanding the number of parking spaces available around its train stations.

In this case, a lot of the initiatives didn’t centre around new tech but instead were down to the Danish government laying out a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish and initiating long-term, sometimes unpopular, plans to achieve that outcome.

Do we still need everyone to travel into the city to work when there are a number of agile working solutions now available? Do the elderly still need to go shopping when a co-op can be formed which can provide the social element they need without the trouble of taking public transportation?

We all need to become a bit more tech agnostic and stop throwing technology at the problem and instead look at the outcome we want and innovate our way there. Otherwise, as Campion said, “we run the risk of creating a better yesterday”.

To hear more about the smart city, citizen and passenger of the future listen and subscribe to Urban Mobility of the Future – Are we ready?

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