How Do we ‘Save’ Cities? An Information Perspective

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I saw this picture a few months ago in a newspaper and its haunted me.  It says so much to me about the gap between reality and opportunity, between how things do work and how they could.    “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”   As the viewer […]

I saw this picture a few months ago in a newspaper and its haunted me.  It says so much to me about the gap between reality and opportunity, between how things do work and how they could. 


“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”

As the viewer here I feel the pain of each person stuck in the jam and trying to get home, I see the intertwining of information and society, I see an optimisation problem gone wrong and the promise of the Internet of Things and smart cities….  I see a better way.

The photo is of Xi’an, a sub-provincial city in China of about 9 million inhabitants, famous for the Terracotta warriors and a rumoured absence of ever seeing blue sky due to pollution.  It’s a traffic jam caused by the failure of the traffic lights at a prominent intersection. 

At Capgemini our vision is that insights from big and fast data will power a digital revolution in public services to dramatically benefit human life.  We are at an inflection point, our ability to optimize the direction of resources to maintain and operate public services enabled by big data, analytics, and technology is revolutionary.  Simply, we can do things now we have never been able to do before. 

I see…

A Pollution Nightmare 
I see through the haze of air pollution from years of industry and transport, and I see a real time issue creating more of it…. the emissions from cars in congestion is several times higher than in fast moving traffic.

A Failure of Maintenance 
The traffic lights broke down – causing delays to many people’s days.  Could this have been prevented?  Could better strategic planning have mitigated this?

A disaster response challenge 
People are still joining the queue of traffic at the back and causing upstream congestion, the authorities on the scene aren’t sure how to fix it, is anyone re-planning their journey as a result or staying at home to work?

A group action problem 
Acting as individuals in a pernicious ‘prisoners dilemma’ type of game each driver went forward as much as they could, there was no collaboration and individual incentives and actions resulted in a sub optimal outcome.

Why we should be Optimistic

Data from a plethora of new sources, such as sensors everywhere, social media, mobile devices, or even weather means that we can combine more information about the world than ever before.  Cheaper technology and ever increasing processing speeds mean that technology is no longer the limitation.  The key question is how we organize ourselves to derive insight from this data and use it to drive action.  So how could we solve the problems above?

Let’s have a look from different perspectives, from the strategic, the operational, and the reactive

Strategic – Pollution and Planning

Incentivise?  In economic terms pollution is an externality, the cost is not born by the producer, so how can we devise mechanisms to bring this cost to the producer, tax?  Pay as you go driving?  Tolls that are sensors that charges by emission? A new market place, enabled by information from sensors can be created to incentivise driver behaviour.

Automation?  Smart traffic lights that understand the full picture of urban traffic and talk to all cars and other lights can co-operate and optimise flow though the whole system.  Better still if we take humans out of the picture?  Check out this vision of Automated Intersection Management once autonomous vehicles become commonplace…  From the University of Texas

Open information and APIs?  By enabling access to information generated by a city in real time we essentially crowd source the solution to many of the problems.  Apps will appear that help people plan routes, find parking spaces, lift share, choose modes of transport, compare car emissions, decide where to live…. Amazing things happen in a decentralised economy when information is shared and we use the power of the group and collaboration.

 Operational – Predictive Maintenance

Predictive maintenance.  How do you optimize the maintenance of public assets?  When is the right time to service?  How many spare parts should you have?  Which are the most important assets to maintain? An ability to collect data from millions of sensors and apply analytics means that all of these questions can be answered.  A stitch in time saves 9….

 Reactive – Disaster Response

But what about when something does happen?  Well, in a connected networked world we can immediately apply other levers to influence behaviour so that the impact of the ‘shock’ is reduced.  Can we alter the behaviour of other traffic lights to reroute other traffic?  Can we alter bus timetables?  Can we send alerts to people to modify their behaviour?  Can we connect quicker to emergency services so they can respond and be ready..?

The impact on public policy and the way we organize civic life will be dramatic and organising to achieve insights from data is right at the centre.

 Exciting times.


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