The most important conclusion from the imec Smart City Meter 2019: the government can and must take the lead.
For the past three years, imec has been surveying the attitudes of people in Flanders and Brussels in relation to smart cities and the latest developments surrounding the topic. In doing so, we not only gauge people’s knowledge about the technology and the opportunities that the Smart City has to offer, but also its aims and shortcomings, such as people’s willingness to take part in research into the smart city or to provide data for smart city solutions. The most important conclusion from the imec Smart City Meter 2019: the government can and must take the lead. We listened to a conversation between Jan Adriaenssens, director City of Things at imec, and Pieter Ballon, director imec-SMIT and professor at VUB.
Public space as a basic concept
Pieter: “Imec-SMIT has conducted the Smart City Meter for the past 3 years. This year, we surveyed some 2000 people from Flanders and Brussels. When I compare the results with three years ago, I am struck by the fact that many people’s knowledge of the subject has increased significantly. For example, they have become well aware that with a smart city, there is often a certain trade-off in terms of privacy. And they rightly view that with some suspicion. Many citizens are simply unable to come to terms with sharing details of their location, or having facial recognition cameras around the place. Yet they don’t totally slam the door closed against them. On the contrary, despite certain reservations or fears, more than 85% of the population believe that the smart city is a ‘positive to very positive’ development.”
Jan: “That’s right. What’s more, our report indicates that people are definitely prepared to make their personal data available in return for relevant functionalities, such as smart routes and a more livable city. By contrast, though, they are increasingly less willing to share their data for things as mundane as a discount voucher – and that can only be good news.”
Pieter: “The concept of ‘public space’ is also crucial here. Many people think it is all right for their actions in the public space to be picked up by smart technologies, such as having a street light to come on to illuminate the way for them when they pass by. A clear majority of those we surveyed are also okay about noise sensors in public areas, or with smart rubbish containers. But as soon as this intrudes into private space, their acceptance level diminishes. This also explains their reluctance to adopt technology such as smart assistants in the home, or smart meters.”
Jan: “So we also need to make sure that we keep an eye on maintaining privacy as much as possible in the public space. Which is where I see technology playing a major role. For instance, there are smart cameras that never actually pass on the images they film. These pictures are only processed and interpreted in the camera itself, which only sends messages such as ‘object deleted’ or ‘person fallen over’. That way, privacy is safeguarded to the maximum.”
Invisible smart city
Pieter: “There’s another striking trend: the people in Flanders and Brussels believe far and away that mobility and livability are the most important areas in which smart cities should and must invest. These topics score much higher than areas such as safety and security, which is something the public debate about smart cities often involves.”
Jan: “This tends to confirm that we have made the right strategic choices by investing in research and solutions relating to air quality, traffic jams, smart routes and so on. People want cleaner public squares, healthier streets, districts where there is no noise pollution, etc. These are all virtually invisible solutions where the technology is not in the foreground, but still remains crucial for achieving our objectives. So, smart cities will not necessarily be ‘visibly smart’.”
Pieter: “Once again, the concept of ‘public space’ comes to the fore here. We expect more from our smart city than just getting smoothly from A to B. We also want it to address the whole context, because we have far less control over it.”
Government as director, citizen as active participant
Jan: “This may also explain why the people we surveyed emphatically want the government to give direction to the whole thing. In s mart cities it’s about capturing various types of behavior and solutions in the public space. And we’d rather have these issues managed by the government than by private organizations.”
Pieter: “The word ‘direction’ sums it up perfectly. That is the role that cities and local authorities – and by extension even whole regions – have to play. They are able to set the direction and the pace, depending on what their citizens want. But a film is not made by a director on his or her own: you also need actors and a large technical team behind you. And for us, this team is the companies and researchers, who can be driving forces with their input and insights.”
Jan: “So it is very important that we involve citizens as much as possible. Not only by surveying them, but also by telling them about what we are doing. For example, look at the way we all drive more slowly when the word SMOG is displayed underneath speed signs, simply because we understand why that particular warning is being shown. All of this becomes a little more difficult with AI and we have to stay vigilant for this.”
Pieter: “One final point worth noting is people’s high level of willingness to take part actively in experiments. 70 to 80% of respondents are prepared to participate in ‘citizen science’ initiatives, for example by installing a measuring station on the façade to take readings of air quality or other parameters. Half of them even say that they would like to tinker with a sensor themselves – which is an interesting thought!”