Professor Mike Batty’s prediction in 1997 that everything around us would be a form of computer by 2050 seems to be coming true. BBC technology reporter Jane Wakefield’s wrote a piece describing a world in which Norwegians are using social media to interact with bus stops, lamp posts in Birmingham are providing live weather updates and people in London are able to track the growth of its’ horticulture. All of this may seem surreal, but Wakefield describes how this rise in urban big data analytics has a crucial part to play in improving the social services its’ citizens rely upon: “the so-called internet of things offers a new way to analyse and measure city life, from whether water pipes are leaking to how traffic is flowing on the roads and whether buildings are using energy in the most efficient way.”

However, the current state isn’t as bright as Wakefield’s article suggests according to Capgemini Global Cities Lead Graham Colclough. I spoke to Graham and he described the huge potential in changing social behaviour in areas such as waste disposal, energy consumption, and health & wellbeing through the massive amounts of data that now exist for cities to analyse and make use of. Or in making cities better places with better services, by managing their asset base and improving urban mobility through better exploiting data. Yet he describes the current management of that data as ‘‘woefully inadequate’’.

Graham says:
We’re still at the experimental stages, in a landscape of tools, data, and opinions on data, that is fast evolving – so it is going to feel like rapid experimentation for quite a while yet. Conditions that are perhaps not ideal for cautious city officers who have the press, public, and politicians breathing down their necks.  Hackathons and the like are good means to excite action and engage multiple (particularly small innovative) parties, however more is required to make impact at scale and sustain improvements.
Delivering true value out of city data has not yet been realised sufficiently and requires us to understand more about the various sources and characteristics of these data sets. ‘Big data’ comes in many different forms!

‘‘Firstly, the data behind the firewalls of big public institutions is not being managed best: at times within each institution, and most certainly between. Though this is being opened up, there will still be a multitude of key information that could add significant value for operations and decision makers if it were handled and analysed properly.

“Secondly, in instances where public institutions open up their large data vaults for public consumption, there is still a job at hand to support the process of realising value. Freeing up data and abdicating responsibility isn’t the answer.

“Thirdly, the myriad sensors appearing around cities, as highlighted in Norway, Birmingham and London, offer a huge opportunity to extract value from a new set of structured machine-readable data. Connecting digital and physical infrastructures across city domains also warrants considerable thought: about where to focus, who covers the costs, and who reaps the rewards.  These conversations are still too much within city silos.

“Fourthly, the realm of ‘social’ data – highly dynamic, expanding massively – and something that holds significant potential and significant perils. This stuff is really open in all senses – time will tell if it is in fact too open.  This is where the commercials world and the public world can collide is both good and bad ways.

“And lastly, as we become more sophisticated about ways of delivering service and value, we need to understand better how to integrate (free) public data with commercially available data sets. At a city level, this offers significant potential – both to public institutions that ‘own’ valuable data to the commercial sector; and vice versa.”

Graham adds: ‘‘Cities must understand this tapestry, architect their way forward, and invest nimbly and intelligently to prove where and how it can add large scale value. At the moment cities are being courted by a growing number of providers of ‘information platforms’ – yet the response of most is to watch and wait (proceed with caution) – in many ways that’s exactly the wrong response to what we actually need!  We need some brave cities to step forward, manage the process, and deliver the value that is undoubtedly there for the taking.”

And what about the fear of Big Data or Big Brother?

‘‘It’s not that straight forward’’ says Graham. ‘‘We must give people the choice of how open they want to be about their data, on an individual basis. If somebody wants public services to be of maximum use to them, even tailored in their needs, then that person is going to have to be more open with their data. For those who do not consciously use public services all that often and want a standardised set of services, then they can be more closed with their data.

‘‘It also comes down to the fact that we’re not yet sure what the art of the possible is with big data analytics in cities – back to that setting of ongoing experimentation. We need to innovate, which of itself means making and learning from mistakes. It’ll take coordinated bravery and a good dose of persistence for us to be able to define what is acceptable as a society.’’

So what is Capgemini doing in this space?

‘‘We’re part of the fast experimentation too. There’s some good thinking from the commercial world that (judiciously) can be taken into cities. There’s also a lot that can be gained through flipping the coin from public security to public service – understanding what some of the data approaches that deal with the fraud, emergency response, CCTV analytics and the like, can do to deliver better service outcomes. The work we are doing in urban mobility is rather progressive. Also we’re keen to ensure our customers get the RoI we’ve delivered in smart metering and responsible energy consumption on our own estate.’’

Your turn now!  Running a smarter city – can you make it happen?

Capgemini is also running a Smart City competition for 12-24 year olds. The challenge is to act like a consultant to think of technology that you could invent, or innovate, or use in a different way that would allow major events to run more smoothly in a city. For more information visit: