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The Three Brains of Smart Cities, as explained by William Confalonieri, CDO, Deakin University

We live in an age of omnipresent technology, where digital innovations have a ripple effect across all the facets of our lives. Technology has evolved to a point where it enables us to move from digital transactions to digital relationships.

By deriving deep insights into personal preferences from online interactions, ironically we can know and treat our customers, on a massive scale, as unique individuals again. This new level of potential digital intimacy represents an immense personalisation opportunity waiting to be realized.

Among the many new concepts that take personalisation to the next level is the concept of Smart City or, in the case of my industry, Smart Campus.

This notion appears when we take the elements of Internet of Things and we apply them to a geographical and social domain, to make the environment surrounding the domain highly responsive to the needs of citizens or patrons.

Mass connectivity, sensors, beacons, actuators, smart objects, analytics and special software can be elegantly combined to complement physical environments with a smart digital layer. With this extra layer, those environments are able to provide a compelling, powerful, personal, inspiring, digital experience.

The entrance to the Smart City dimension, however, it is not through a single step or a single strategy. In my view the possibilities of the Smart City concept should understood under a framework with three waves or “three brains”.

The first one, and perhaps the most obvious one, is the Industrial Brain Dimension. Here, there is a broad set of imperatives around improving costs and productivity.

The `low hanging fruit’ for a Smart City approach is often the potential cost savings associated with deployment of smart lighting, smart waste management, smart systems and processes (e.g. scheduling), and building optimisation.

The second one is the Customer-Centric Brain Dimension, where opportunities relate to technology’s capacity to drive a better experience and outcome for citizens.

The use of predictive analytics, as an example, is creating opportunities to better understand how citizens respond to different interventions. Services can then be deployed just at the moment and place where they are needed.

The third one, still to be realised, is the most powerful one: the Meta Brain Dimension. When organisations and cities have in place their own mature Smart Cities solutions, a completely new entity will be created.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to think of sensors and actuators being deployed by many different organisations at the same geographical point. What will probably happen: some Smart City solutions will provide services to other Smart City solutions.

As consequence, the networking of these brains will create a Meta Brain reaching far beyond the aspirations of the designers for each of the parts. My thesis is that there is another set of potential Smart City benefits that are impossible to define, but potentially more significant than the advantages arising from the first two brain categories.

This creates an emerging capacity for people, knowledge and practice to be connected into new ways of knowing and acting at a global scale that will might make look insipid the hyper-connectivity we experiment today. In much the same way as we could never have imagined social media when the Internet was invented, there are `killer applications’ of IoE that are invisible today.

The role of Industry Partnerships

The presence of a vibrant commercial sector is critical to the sustainability of regions. Industry plays a role as an economic driver and major employer, but also a source of energy and innovation. Industry partnerships – at many levels - are crucial to unlocking the potential of IoE and creating Smart Cities.

Multinational companies have a role to play in bringing global experience to bear in the `architecting’ and implementation of a Smart City vision. Despite this, no single vendor can expect to provide the capability and knowledge necessary to create a Smart City.

A range of potential players – including industry beacons and financiers in the local economy – need to be mobilised to generate momentum.

Another powerful industry force is start-ups and entrepreneurs. These institutions operate at the dynamic edge of local economies, creating new value, innovation and economic wealth and acting as a powerful force for renewal. A Smart City without a vibrant start-up ecosystem is not sustainable. 

What it takes to implement a successful Smart City plan

Five success factors can be identified for those wanting to pursue a Smart City agenda:

1. Strong and sustained leadership: Smart Cities are underpinned by a clear and compelling vision and a relentless commitment to achieving it.

2. A robust architectural design and plan: while there is merit in simply getting started and experimenting, there is no substitute for a vision and a plan. This is particularly important from a technology perspective where the high level architecture provides clarity around a raft of potential decisions.

Without a robust architecture there is a risk that issues such as security and interoperability need to be addressed on a project-by-project basis, which is both inefficient and potentially risky.

3. A collaborative approach: Smart Cities are, by definition, cross functional. A Smart City or Smart Campus is invariably the product of multiple parties (planners, university, industry and the community) and multiple inputs (technology, human and systems).

The role of universities as educators, researchers and community partners is also critical. Creating a Smart City is closely aligned to the Australian Government’s nine science and research1 and innovation agenda. Finding effective mechanisms to facilitate collaboration remains a challenge that must be overcome.

4. Underpinning infrastructure: Smart Cities are built on a robust infrastructure. At the core of this infrastructure is a robust, secure and scalable network capable of connecting sensors. Without high standards of connectivity, the vision for a Smart City or Smart Campus cannot be realised.

Beyond network, a robust systems infrastructure is also critical to ensure that data can be transformed into insights, decisions and activity.

5. A customer centric approach: the challenge with Smart Cities and Smart Campuses is not identifying what’s possible, but what’s useful and relevant to the end user.

People want to make their own decisions and any `smart’ solution needs to support citizens, students and other stakeholders to that end. Cases absolutely can be used to drive strategy and cases depicted as human `stories’ are particularly powerful.

The City of Adelaide’s Paul Auhl demonstrated the power of describing a Smart City, from a citizen’s perspective. Smart infrastructure became user-friendly tools in following a person walking out of a sports stadium after a game, or in relocating an expat to a new city to live and work.

Like everything, our cities, large and small, are changing. That renewal is economic, social and physical. In building more resilient cities and regions it is critical to exploit the potential of technology, including the opportunities offered by `machine scale’ networking.

Adopting Confalonieri’s Customer-Centric Brain approach, a Smart City (and Smart Campus) should be more attuned to the needs of citizens and more capable of meeting them. The use of sensors, big data and analytics is creating myriad possibilities to improve the design and delivery of services.

A true Smart City does not simply push services to citizens. Rather, it catalyses the energy from the community to shape the vision and execution. This recognises that innovation is led by citizens, not institutions.

In terms of exploitation of new technology along with all available resources (such as universities) to embrace renewal, - Australia is behind.

Australia’s relies too heavily on its natural assets rather than looking to its human capital to create new sources of wealth. This conversation can be distilled to into a number of pertinent conclusions:

  • The need to move from possibilities to practice. Getting started with projects is an excellent first step.
  • The need to move from consideration of individual pieces (of a Smart Cities agenda) to contemplation of the design of the wider puzzle. Almost a counter to the first conclusion is the need to approach implementation strategically. Getting started is important, but getting started with a clear architecture and design is preferable.
  • We have barely started to explore the transformation of institutions and businesses being driven by mass connectivity and the rising power of the Internet of Everything. While there are risks, there are opportunities too for new ways to tackle challenges around employment, skills, social development and sustainability.

Human purpose and values need to be at the heart of the endeavour of economic and social change, much of which will play out, and will benefit, the growth of smart and connected cities and their universities. 

Image from A Health Blog- CC BY SA 2.0

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