December 9, 2015

Smart Cities – Dumb People 

BY :     December 9, 2015

There’s a long history of people who are dumb.. Why else would there be a series of movies called Dumb and Dumber, and Dumbonot to mention the Darwin awards.

Thinking of the trouble that people can get up to without “Smart Cities” helping them is best described as “interesting.” Interesting being a synonym for bowl-emptying, terrifying (see item 5 in the list of Smart City services)

Do you want to live in a city that is smarter than you?  And where does a Smart City stop? What if you live in a town? Or a village? Or even in your home? What about the parking system linking to the company health insurer and deciding you need to walk a bit more?

Now if you are reading this I’m going to mark you down as being on the smarter side of the human spectrum (you can read, use a computer and you’ve found this blog entry) and I want you to think about a little about Smart Cities.

What is a Smart City?  Is it just another term that generates lots of white papers, documents and government grants but never actually amounts to very much? It probably even generates lots of blog posts (but we’ll exclude them)

One of the best quotes for what Smart City is and should be came from New York city.

A smart city uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”(

But none of this really sounds very bright to me – especially if the lights have been turned off because the software wasn’t tested correctly. One of the lists about the top five items in smart cities listed the following:

  1. Smart lighting saves energy but can make people feel unsafe
  2. Smart parking helps you find a parking spot but what about the shops paying to make sure that their “best” customers get to park closest
  3. Smart traffic lights; keep the traffic flowing but watchout for the Italian job jamming them
  4. Smart waste systems get it right and you come up smelling of roses but get it wrong especially in the summer
  5. Smart emergency response great for co-ordinating responses to expected incidents but able to be spoofed to respond to one incident and move resources away from where they may be really needed

All of these systems exist now and work well – within the limits imposed by the physical space in the cities. All of them have evolved for many years in handling the peaks and trough of demand. Now by simply adding the prefix “smart” they have turned into a hot topic. None of them seem to address the basic question of “what do I get extra for living in a smart city compared to living in a normal city?” The answer so far is in fact it probably costs more, introduces a new level of complexity to the city and increases the risk of key systems either failing or being compromised by external bad actors (the real bad guys, not the ones in the films).

If the city is smart, what about our homes? How long before the kettle is going to let the bus know you are having an extra cuppa before setting off? But perhaps it is another member of the family or a guest who’s having the cuppa?Should it be sharing that information? Now cities are complicated machines that can very easily stop working.

If you want to see a classic, lightning strike scenario you don’t have to look further than New York. Back in the pre-web days of 1977 an actual lightning strike brought large areas of the city to a standstill,  which led to looting and generally lots of really bad stuff happening. The transportation system gave up, ventilation systems failed, the  airports closed.

Imagine that happening now but with the added horror of not being able to tweet or share it on Facebook?

So how can we avoid the pitfalls? Do we want the bus stop to ask us to like it on Facebook (and those get a bus quicker). Should we be looking to put smart living intoschools? Run public education advertorials and training sessions? Or do we keep it simple, avoid leaving the decisions down to machines and rely on people? After all, cities have worked quite well for thousands of years and all without a blue screen of death. image credit: shutterstock



Andrew Fullen


Andrew has been a managing consultant with Sogeti since 2009. In this role, he has worked on a number of major clients across government and private sectors covering tasks such as security test manager for a major government pan-agency project, helping with restructuring a bank rescued by the UK government during the financial crash, re-planning a major welfare project and architecting a performance policy and approach to address significant shortfalls in the delivered solution.

More on Andrew Fullen.

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*Opinions expressed on this blog reflect the writer’s views and not the position of the Sogeti Group