Every City Wants to Be Innovative. How Can They Get There?

Warren Lemmens, the CTO of Nokia Oceania, discusses Australia's emerging smart city landscape — and what the U.S. can learn from it.

by / May 5, 2017

Word from down under: Cities need to get smarter about data, younger people need to lead the charge, and the U.S. is not exactly out front on this stuff.

When Nokia released a detailed analysis on civic tech in the southern hemisphere, titled A new world of cities and the future of Australia — which gives a thorough accounting of the emerging smart city landscape there — we talked to Warren Lemmens, Nokia’s CTO Oceania, about the report's findings and its implications for U.S. cities struggling to get a handle on the smart city landscape.

You write that cities do not have the capacity for incremental urbanization. In what sense?

Urbanization is largely about peoples' densification of cities and finding the balance between sustaining standards of living, preserving the environment and maintaining jobs through economic development. Cities in Australia generally have a focus toward their rate payers [local tax constituents], and they have limited revenue sources, measured largely by the cost efficiency of the municipality.

Rate payers generally don’t accept investment in services beyond the scope of their municipal services. So municipalities are generally resource constrained, both for skills and financing, to adapt to disruptive changes. The support for change usually comes from heroics of leading individuals, rather than systemic programs from shared planning objectives. 

You argue that small incremental technology programs aren’t the answer. Why not? What’s a better way?

In our view, one of the most important aspects of a smarter city is its maturity and capability with regard to data sharing and data management across all sectors of government via a common platform.

A city can easily fund any number of projects to make garbage collection and water drainage more efficient. A city can invest in smart lighting, smart parking and video surveillance — but each of the projects results in a specific improvement within the traditional silos of city operations. 

We strongly believe that the real “smarts” happen when all these projects collecting all these data sets start to come together ,and innovation with the citizens and businesses at the center takes place. The city typically struggles to fund and even understand the need for such a central data administration, so we are encouraging governments to see cities as critical productivity engines to justify this more strategic investment. 

You advocate a “collaborative ecosystem” for cities — meaning what?

We have some positive momentum with start-ups and innovation in Australia, but our start-ups do have a culture of protecting their ideas — their intellectual property — to such an extent that they sometimes do not often benefit from the wider innovation community. We are trying to improve this collaboration. 

From where we sit, we think that the U.S. and Israel and even the U.K. have a more collaborative culture than Australia does, and we want to do something about it. Many times a great idea is lost because the start-up is trying to build an entire ecosystem to accommodate their product when they could leverage existing elements and just focus on their product idea.

You also advocate some fundamental changes to the structure of city government.

Cities today operate in traditional silos. That’s OK now, but in a digital world, data within one silo may be highly useful in another silo. And indeed data from a number of silos may come together to offer new innovation opportunities. The city needs a more centralized data management capability so that all data captured can be appropriately shared. Tools to make data sharing work are very important.

As IoT grows, more and more devices will be gathering more and more data. This data will increasingly become part of the city’s critical infrastructure. So the city needs to treat this emerging IoT and data evolution as critical infrastructure that extends well beyond their traditional enterprise environment to include sensors deployed right across the city.

There is no need to restructure the whole city, but adding this central data administration — or partnering with someone who can do it — will be at the heart of any smarter city. 

Every city wants to be innovative. How can they get there?

We have seen city executives claim that they are happy to invest in anything that shows a good business case. In a digital environment, the administrator may be asked to fund a study into some new data with no knowledge of what problems may be uncovered by the analysis. Today a city would not invest because the traditional business case would fail. 

The future will be full of opportunities to innovate based on discovering things through data analysis, but without the opportunity to explore this data, the city will not be the innovator. It won’t be good enough to just incrementally improve productivity one silo at a time.

What about the demographics around smart cities?

The digital economy can be measured in terms of its disruption to traditional ways of viewing the world in which we live. This disruption is itself transformative and generally driven by younger people who understand technology and, if given a chance, can drive change. 

The belief is that the rate of innovation can be increased by leveraging the younger talent of the country to exploit supporting disruptive platforms including City Digital Platform advocated by Nokia. We also believe this is a journey that must be well underway now, to ensure our cities become more globally connected and internationally competitive. If we don’t, then the following generations will go work somewhere else. 

Finally, your report looks at Australia. Does this all apply equally in the U.S.?

We can see that some of the best city innovations are emerging in the U.K. and Europe. Only a small number of U.S. cities are accelerating into cross-sectoral digital innovation. We are all struggling with human rights and data sharing rules.

We all want to innovate while doing no harm. We do not want inappropriate personal data to be shared without protecting individual identity, but to get a city to be more productive, information must be shared.

Our question to you is, are you rapidly moving toward a data-sharing model that citizens are comfortable with and in supportive of? The cities that work this out first will gain an advantage, and the start-up community that delivers innovation successfully will deliver these things to the world. 

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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