Skip to content
August 6, 2012 / Leo Hollis

How smart is London?

Where is your favourite place on Google earth? For the past couple of years I have been regularly checking to see progress at Songdo, a new city that is being built on reclaimed ground outside Incheon, Korea. As I type the name into my iPad, the globe on the screen turns and as the satellite swerves, the focus hurtles toward the earth once again until you can see just the outline of a city.


It is a pattern of worksites and skyscrapers – a city in the making.  Songdo is a new kind of metropolis: the smart city, built according to the new rules of the information age.  This is a connected city, in which monitors and sensors relays real time data to regulate the urban fabric. The new city is no longer a static collection of places but ‘a computer in open air’ and is being built from the ground up with smart technology in mind. Every part of the infrastructure is connected to each other, all running on Cisco’s U.Life technology.

For example, street cameras report on the flow of pedestrians on the street, and brighten or dim the pavement lamps accordingly; radio frequency identification tag’s are attached to car number plates to watch traffic and react to congestion; monitors on building and roads will report on conditions, to avoid costly works or unnecessary delays; there will be weather forecasts that can prepare the power grid for surges in demand when it gets cold; at other times, the smart energy grid will monitor usage and flows and predict demand as well as search for efficiencies; there will also be a smart grid for water and waste.

In addition, each home will also become smarter: touch pads in each apartment will control temperature, lighting and track energy use. Smart architecture will also help the sustainable city with roof gardens planted to reduce the ‘heat island’ effect, and reduce storm water run-off. There will also be no waste collection as everything will be processed by a centralized pressure driver collection method. This is the age of the smart city, but what does that mean?

The first mobile phone network, NTT, was set up in Japan in 1977. By 2002, there were 1 billion connections, yet within eight years this had risen to 5 billion.  Soon, it is predicted, there will be over 60 billions connections. It is not just our phones and computers that are now connected; we now live in the ‘internet of things’ where data is collected every time we use the public transport system; our cars can be connected to the garage to tell them when there has been a fault; traffic lights and road signs contain sensors which detect congestion and traffic flow; buildings can regulate internal temperature or lighting; face recognition software used for everything from banking to security is here.

The impact of real time data can empower everyday life in the city. The smart city not only offers the kind of data that helps us make decisions it can also create systems that make the running of the city more efficient. It is a way of informing the real world, not replacing it, creating what Anthony Townsend of the California-based Institute of the Future calls a ‘blended urban reality’.

If Songdo is the city of the future, where does this leave London? Can the capital – with its Roman street plan, Victorian infrastructure, and endless sprawling suburbs – ever be a smart city?  The capital certainly has been talking about being smart  in time for this summer but the reality appears less impressive.

In May it was announced that a series of smart experiments, conducted by IT plan, were going to be conducted in North Greenwich. In time for the Olympics Transport for London announced that WiFi was going to be available throughout the tube network. Elsewhere, other initiatives are gaining momentum: the London Datastore was set up on 2010 in order to share government information. All these programs and projects came heralded as the dawn of smart London; but the reality is not so clear.

The original idea was to have free wifi at 80 stations, yet in June it was announced that the scheme would start with seven. Today, this number has risen to forty. universal Wifi is clearly a very good idea but the idea of just offering a service in tube stations feels like a compromise.The tube system is going to be coping with unprecedented numbers of visitors this month, do we really want to get stuck behind someone checking their emails rather than getting a move on?  

As for the Plan IT project in North Greenwich, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.  This is a small scale attempt to retro-fit the city to be more like Songdo with smart lamp posts, connecting water, transport and energy services. It is a small test area around the O2 Dome, but as Gary Gutlack writes on Gizmodo: ‘If it doesn’t work no one will really notice’. But it could still offer some very interesting results that could herald some big changes in the city. Smart technology allows the city to collect the kind of information that has previously been impossible. It will undoubtedly help us make better discisions about transport, utilities and, in particular, how we use energy with the promise of a more sustainable neighbourhoods.

But pilot projects, and smart technology itself, come with a warning: Plan IT is a software partnership offering the ‘Urban Operating System’ [UOS TM] the smart city in a box, and it is not the waonly one out there. Big players such as IBM, CISCO, Siemans, Accenture, McKinsey, and BoozAllen are all entering the debate on the intelligent city, the smart grid, next generation buildings, developing the tools to bring efficiency, sustainability and a connected metropolis. These big companies are talking to City Halls, offering end-to-end solutions, the complete package to retrofit the everyday city for the 21st century with a very hard sell. It is relationships like this that one can not fail to think of  a dystopian future like ‘Blade Runner’ or even ‘Robocop’ when software companies have taken over the city.

However, the very same technology that could set us free, can also be used for murkier motives: Lockdown London. The games this summer are going to prove just how smart London is in other ways: security and surveillance. According to the geographer Stephen Graham the city itself has become the battleground in the War Against Terror. Many of these new techniques, learned from the battlefields and Green Zones of Iraq and the on-going war between Israel and the Palestinian people, are being brought to bear in the preparations for the Olympics. In the months leading up to the games, the city has been on high alert, with the UK’s greatest mobilisation of troops and hardware since 1945. And these technologies are not going away once the games have ended.

What if the city’s information were in the hands of the people who use the city rather than the politicians or software companies? London can never be like Songdo but the capital should define its own criteria for being a digital city and use its own expertise to make the city a better place. There are many things that government and City Hall must deliver on as soon as possible but the city must be allowed to become smart in its own way. As Carlo Ratti, the head of the MIT SENSEable lab, the leading research group in smart cities, has often said: these new innovations are not solely about technology, but about people.

In 2009, Mayor Boris Johnson launched the London Datastore [] filled with information on everything from abandoned cars, education league tables, to the expense account details of London government members. In time it also was allowed to display real time data for the tube system, the police and local NHS.

The Datastore make available some of the raw material to turn London into a smart city: the store gives out the data for free without restrictions. This has the potential for creating a dialogue where previously there had been reticence and distrust. It also makes possible a plethora of really good ideas, for the data has inspired the development of numerous apps, developed by policy fanatics, budding entrepreneurs or socially minded hackers, that change the way we use the city: from availability of Boris bikes to real time bus information.

But it not just the Datastore that is telling us about the city. Using an unexpected variety of different sources, the Mapping London group at CASA [the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis] at UCL have uncovered a number of different ways that people travel and use London: where the most Flickr images are taken, why Piccadilly is the most popular place to tweet, the timed usage of Oyster Cards throughout a 24 hour period. It also produces the City Dashboard, that is essential for every desktop that charts everything from the average happiness of London, using data taken from the LSE mappiness project, to bike available, air pollution and tube line services.

For one’s own personal navigation of the city, there are nowa variety of apps like Streetmuseum that uses your smart phone to layer archive images of London. The Londonist website has also developed its own historical readings of the city, using GPs to devise a map the birth and death of English Monarchs, as well as the layering of historical maps to see what the ground beneath your feet looked like in the 18th century and beyond. With a smart phone in your pocket, it may now be impossible to get lost in London, but one can go on any number of adventures.

Many of these very good ideas are coming from Shoreditch in the East End, which in November 2010 was named by Cameron as Tech City, the white hot hub of Britain’s digital economy. Talking to Elizabeth Varley, founder of Tech Hub, the leading incubator, situated near Silicon Roundabout, there is much progress but also much to do to make London a global competitor. Despite international marketing campaigns, it is the organic growth of a home grown industry in the warehouses and old office space of Shoreditch that makes the place so exciting. Despite this, there is still not enough cheap commercial space for new start-ups, and the broadband bandwidth to the neighbourhood needs up dating.

More importantly, Varley feels that London will not truly become a smart city until two things happen. Firstly it needs to stop comparing itself to Silicon Valley, and find its own genius. Varley in particular is excited by the growing relationship between the tech sector and universities, with schemes such as the Digital Cities Exchange at Imperial College. London may not be home to the next Facebook or Google but it could have a huge impact in healthcare, sustainability or transport. Secondly, in addition to attracting big foreign companies to London the government should invest in the very first stages of home grown innovation, offering seed funding to innovators at the beginning of their careers.

If London is to be a smart city it is because it invests in smart people, not just in smart technology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: