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Smart Cities 2021

Smart communities – beyond technology

iStock / Getty Images Plus / metamorworks

Duncan Botting

Smart Communities Expert, The Institution of Engineering and Technology

A smart community has many meanings. The adoption of technology to enhance some aspects of a community’s operation represents most views.

At its heart, a smart community is a complex interaction between people, place, processes, infrastructure and mobility.

By understanding these whole system interactions, it is possible to unlock huge potential in cost savings, environmental improvements, societal benefits and commercial opportunities for jobs, growth and productivity.

We are locked into “reductionist” mind-sets. In reducing the problem to make it easier to understand, we lose the benefit of the complex interactions that created the original issue.

Just looking at traffic queues at traffic lights, but not the road excavations that caused the real traffic queue is a simple example of this challenge.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) have engineers that understand these complex interactions. However, these skill sets are not easily taught or gained through experience. We train specialists on deep understanding in specific areas without whole system understanding. Construction engineers know little about the communications interference building materials have on wireless communications in a building, for example.

Planned or unexpected consequences?

Research is being conducted into whole systems interactions, but relationships that exist today are already shaping our smart communities as we speak. Policies, commercial contracts, planning approaches and technology implementations that existed for decades shape the solutions being deployed.

The digital age created concerns regarding privacy and security, the future smart community without the right governance, will create similar challenges.

Whole systems thinking includes all these characteristics and more. The complexity means that digital approaches are needed to understand these. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems can spot interactions in minutes that would take many weeks for a human to diagnose. Special skills that understand complex systems of systems are needed.

Digital inclusion and skills

Smart communities informed by complex interactions could deliver savings and efficiencies not yet considered. Several important decisions about who will set these criteria; local or national, man or machine, will be required.

The digital age created concerns regarding privacy and security, the future smart community without the right governance, will create similar challenges.

Recent disruptions have shown digital inclusion is paramount. Digital strategies provide whole system enablement, while digital skills deliver engagement and inclusivity.

Key to the use of technology for a smart community will be people who can think of whole systems with a deep understanding of complex systems. These skills are scarce today, but need to be deployed across civic, public and private domains. We need to train new generations with these essential skills now.

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