Will smart cities make us happier?

Andy O’Kelly

Innovation Network Solutions News

As Ireland hosts its Third National Smart Cities Summit, I’ve been thinking about happiness, and whether smart cities can deliver it.

A recent article in The Guardian, The secrets of the world’s happiest cities, noted research saying that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. City life impacts on our happiness. So can we be happier if the city is smarter?

In advance of my talk at this week’s 3rd National Smart Cities Summit in Dublin, I thought a lot about what unifies various descriptions or definitions of the smart city. A common thread is ubiquity of ICT and networked technologies, pervasively linking things and people, as enablers of innovation and creativity, to facilitate social, environmental, economic, and cultural development.

The potential societal benefits resonate with the citizen. As local and central Government seeks to reduce the cost of public services, grow jobs, and establish exports, the interest in smart cities is politically attractive.

For anyone in the business of ICT, there is a scale of investment potential that underpins such utopian ambition, and also a pay-back duration that clearly excites; it’s a big market. By 2020, the smart city technology market will be worth $20.2 billion annually which represents a compound annual growth rate of 16.2% according to Navigant. The smart city agenda reflects a wider desire for ICT to tackle real world problems, as opposed to ‘just’ automation of bureaucracy – it’s a grand challenge.

To quote Max Marber, “The world’s biggest problem is that not enough people are working on the world’s biggest problems,” and addressing the problems of cities is surely a laudable enterprise. To make money and do good for society. Who wouldn’t want to work there?

Much of the foundation work in pervasively linking things and people – the network fabric as an enabler – is in progress across the cities of Ireland through the investment of the telecoms sector. eir Group alone is spending €450 million constructing Ireland’s largest fibre broadband network that will reach 1.2 million homes and businesses by June 2015, representing 60% of all homes and businesses in the country. The network is a basic enabler of smart towns as well as smart cities.

Adding 10,000 premises to the network per week, there will be 600,000 homes and businesses that can reach the network by the end of the year. Underpinned by a €330 million investment commitment over five years, our 4G service is now live in Dublin, Carlow, Athlone, Cork, Limerick and Galway, and by the end of this year 43% of the population will have a 4G service.

Our vision is to provide seamless access to high speed broadband across Ireland using both fixed and mobile technologies. This network won’t just connect people, it will connect the ‘Internet of Things’ also – telemetry networks, sensor networks, the 26 smart objects per person predicted by Intel by 2020.




Devices are an enabler too, getting smarter and evolving very quickly – there was no iPad before 2010. The ever increasing penetration of the smart phone, and the rapid consumer technology cycle which to date has been largely subsidised by the mobile operators, in combination with increasing popularity of social networking, has traditional IT in a spin.

There was a time when we wanted IT of the quality we used at work to be available at home – now this is frequently reversed. The potential for so many interactions to be controlled via networks, putting information flows formerly confined to branch office green screen terminals into the hands of the public, is profound.

Consider policing. Trials of body worn video cameras in the UK and US have seen reductions in the crime rate and improved citizen confidence in the police. Facial recognition in CCTV, similar to that recently announced by Tesco to identify shopper gender, is being used to identify criminals, for example using video from the transit system in Chicago.

Smart cities, their data, and the Dublin-based cloud

The data created by these devices and sensors needs to be stored and analysed somewhere, and that somewhere is for many applications across Europe going to be Dublin. In a cloud ecosystem, the desire to deliver ever faster processing sees data and servers reside as closely as possible, and clusters of skills form a talent pool around them that attracts start-ups and investors.

The Cloud hub that has been built here in the recent past by the key players, including Amazon, presents a remarkable opportunity for Dublin and Ireland. Amazon Web Services is the overwhelming market share leader for cloud, with more than five times the compute capacity in use than the aggregate total of the other fourteen providers in the Gartner Magic Quadrant. The AWS Western Europe Region runs exclusively in Dublin.

The ‘Cloud First’ approach advocated by Ireland’s new Government CIO, and the Government Cloud Services Catalogue being progressed by his Office, is to be welcomed as a foundation layer for the public sector to deliver smart city initiatives, and will I hope, capitalise on and encourage this cloud hub.

The smart city challenges behind all that potential

Technologists are not experts in City Planning or Energy Management, or Education, or Public Administration. The key ingredient to making any change happen in terms of innovation (to quote Max Marber again), is the “domain expert, who has deep insight into the industry they are trying to disrupt” and “without a domain expert, attempts at disruption are unimaginative and incremental at best.” To disrupt an industry you need to know it. What’s needed, what’s relevant and useful, needs to be grounded in the feasible, but should in my view never be solely under the selection and control of a technologist.

How do you mobilise and engage the experts and the innovators? The value chains for innovation are complex, with a high dependency on the enablers – including the network – which may not of themselves recoup the build cost in the short term, while for instance a disruptive and highly valuable solution for citizen interaction may be impossible in the absence of a particular level of coverage that requires a tailored network development.

Networks are not free – eir Group alone spends €1.3 billion annually in Ireland – that’s €5 million every working day. There have been tenders that ask network providers to build services for free, seeking new revenue models where an unclear advertising model is the default catch-all, perhaps without consideration of its suitability (the citizen should not be presumed to be a consumer), or sustainability (‘I’m losing money on each transaction, but will make up for it when the volume increases’).

Given the nature of these value chains, partnering in this space is crucial, and partnering is not easy. While Big IT will typically complain about the restrictions imposed by tender regulation in the Public Sector, and the hindrance this poses to innovation, the concern within the Public Sector around the long term lock-in of embedded infrastructure, ageing more rapidly than the pace of consumer technology to become quaint curios long before their RoI has been delivered, is a legitimate one too.

A look at smart city strategies

Here are my thoughts on five things to consider as we try to move towards smart cities:

1. Embrace the equalising potential of Cloud – Cloud provides the scalability, resilience and global export platform that has been beyond the affordable reach of even the biggest budgets. It allows ideas to be proven as successful without significant capital investment or to ‘Fail Faster’: it’s better to try out ideas quickly than to embark on grand projects that are only validated after a lot of time and money has been spent. For Dublin and Ireland, the physical dimension of the cloud across this city is a remarkable differentiator.

2. Embrace the intellectual challenge of Big Data – which is about what questions need to be asked, and not the formerly mountainous challenge of a technology build that was the preserve of disk and server manufacturers.

3. Create the right legal and organisational framework – to unlock the value of data in the public interest, while respecting privacy in the post-PRISM world.

4. There will be ambiguity – given the diversity of stakeholders, decentralised decision making, competing choices and evolving technology. Adam Smith said “On the road from the City of Skepticism, I had to pass through the Valley of Ambiguity.”

5. Acknowledge that innovation can come from anywhere – but needs that domain expertise in combination with technology to really work. Embracing cross-discipline collaboration, partnering, is vital.


Andy O’Kelly is Chief Architect at eir and a speaker on IT solutions and innovation. Follow Andy on Twitter, connect on Linked In.