Think Tank: collaboration, as much as tech, will rebuild smart cities

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SmartCitiesWorld board member and Nokia’s Director of Future Cities Jacques Vermeulen on the importance of the Quintuple Helix approach.

For future cities to deliver on quality of life, genuine collaboration is key. Traditional city governance – via siloed agencies with their own budgets, services, and visions – cannot adequately navigate the complexity of future city planning. Rather the future of cities will rest on four crucial pillars; universities, industry, government and civil society.

Sustainable progress depends on the shared buy-in and commitment of all four players while also caring for the environment, which comprises a crucial fifth pillar – rather than any combination dragging the others along.

We call this the Quintuple Helix, in recognition of the interdependent role they must play in order for future cities to reach their full potential. The rationale behind the approach is relatively simple. Decisions made by one organisation can have multiple impacts on the work of others, leading to unexpected consequences. And as cities become ever more complex, this is increasingly the case.

Simple edicts are becoming less useful – meaning we must involve all relevant stakeholders from the outset. Stakeholder engagement can, however, be a rushed and perfunctory exercise; and at its worst can become a form of box-ticking. With something as seismic and multi-dimensional as future city development, this simply cannot happen.

From deficit base to sustainable collaboration

All too often, attempts to improve systems start from a ‘deficit base’ – an analysis of what is dysfunctional, broken, or otherwise wrong. This may seem obvious, but in practice can lead to fragmentation.

Breaking complex, interrelated structures into smaller defined elements leads to experts and managers being attributed to each individual silo; ultimately resulting in deference to, and dependence on, that hierarchy by the rest of the organisation. Subdivision can lead to diagnoses that find root causes in other organisational clusters, which drives up adversarial mindsets and prevents experimentation and creative thinking.

Subdivision drives up adversarial mindsets and prevents creative thinking

Collaboration succeeds less when stakeholders are on the defensive. When efforts start from attempts to find culpability, drawbridges can go up and the whole endeavour can cease to look much like collaboration at all.
This is why a methodology that takes the Quintuple Helix properly into account is required. A more inclusive, generative approach – which sees stakeholders less as competing experts, and more as fellow travellers with shared goals – can yield sustainably collaborative improvements.

Collectively envisioning the future

The value of the Quintuple Helix approach is in identifying crucial topics, discovering the positive core to engage, envisioning the desired future and blueprinting the operational services required for delivery. Within the Quintuple Helix of universities, industries, governments and civil societies, stakeholder engagement begins by connecting local challenges and ambitions to their global context and assessing existing levels of capacity for implementation.

Jacques Vermeulen, Director of Future Cities, Nokia

Discussion between parties can proceed from there on how new technologies, services and business models can be developed to improve a city’s operational performance – and with it, the conditions enjoyed by residents, government, academia and enterprise.

Standardised use cases often result in early successes before becoming cumbersome when scaled

In practical terms, this begins by identifying relevant algorithms, sensors, data protection capabilities and AI as well as the ways in which local enterprise and civic bodies can use them to add value to local GDP, develop existing areas of expertise and make cities better places to live. These analyses can be assisted, for example, by streaming platforms with anomaly detection – powered by AI – to support accurate observation and orientation pipelines and calculate resources, while connected sensors provide real-time data.

This holistic methodology yields more sustainable benefits than implementation of standardised, siloed use cases, which often result in early successes that then become cumbersome or problematic for some stakeholders when scaled.

An approach that helps organisations to envision their preferred future state collectively contrasts sharply with problem-finding discourses. As a result, it enables them to find practical ways of designing their future, often starting with gains made from straightforward operational efficiencies. And this can be achieved through implementation of features as everyday as the humble lamppost.

Technical benefits of sustainable collaboration

Three-quarters of Europe’s roughly 90 million lampposts are more than 25 years old – consuming up to 50 per cent of a city’s total energy budget. Future LED powered lampposts, on the other hand, can reduce these costs by 70 per cent, enhance street safety and reduce residents’ frustration with outages through automation and greater responsiveness. They can also be used for secondary purposes like surveillance, environmental monitoring or 5G cell sites, while freeing up budgets for other needs. Those future needs will increasingly require connectivity and many will rely on investment in sensors, algorithms and cloud platforms.

Efficiency savings made in areas like future street lighting can then be allocated to areas of pressing need, such as law enforcement. Here, the challenges of population increase set against declining police numbers can be mitigated by using resources in better-informed, more targeted ways. Where operational transformation can be achieved via distributed IoT platforms, and timely interpretation of sensor data into actionable information, new public safety services can be developed to shift focus onto crime prevention.

Faster, better data is also at the heart of future multi-modal urban mobility, in which decisions will be aided by real-time streaming platforms, in conjunction with machine learning applied to data from a wide range of sensors. While the gains from these forms of innovation are many, implementation is complex – numerous stakeholders will need to adjust to flexible and programmable data streaming services, and real-time stream-processing platforms, for instance.

Crucial to these possibilities and more is the role of shared vision. This is a prize best won through a non-hierarchical collective approach, such as the Quintuple Helix, which can yield the truly integrated operations needed between government, enterprise, academia and civil society – made practicable by flexible and efficient connected platforms to which all parties are truly committed, while caring for the planet we live on.

The Quintuple Helix approach allows all involved parties to appreciate the technical, institutional and social forces at play, and build on that understanding to practical effect for the common good. Not least of these is the importance of data protection; if the trust of communities and organizations is to be won that is, and the promise of smart cities realised.