How will big data impact the future of our cities?

As our cities look to become smarter and better serve those who inhabit them, there’s a growing movement towards the sharing data, acceleration of innovation and removal of barriers to change within metropolitan areas...

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To get a better understanding of how this is working on a practical level we sat down with Peter Madden, Chief Executive at Future Cities Catapult, a global centre of excellence on urban innovation. Being in the unique position of offering cities, businesses and universities a neutral area to discuss the problems facing our cities – and work towards solutions to these – we figured there weren’t many organisations in a better place to offer some insight into the future of smart cities.

What are the biggest challenges facing cities at this moment in time?

Globally, the number of people living in cities will almost double over the next 30 years. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on everything that makes a city work, from housing and transport systems to water and energy supplies. Here in the UK, we face a different set of challenges. Our infrastructure is ageing. Our population is getting older. And cities are having to make major cuts to public spending.

I guess the thing that cities across the world have in common is that the demands on infrastructure and services are often out-stripping the ability to provide and pay for them. For me, this means that we are going to have to find more efficient ways to use the infrastructure and facilities we already have, and I think new technology has a vital role to play here.

How is the Future Cities Catapult helping to accelerate positives changes in smart cities such as London?

We’re a new innovation centre, based in London, helping cities, businesses, and innovators to come up with commercial ideas that improve how cities function. That means pulling through great ideas from our Universities and start-ups and matching those with the emerging needs of cities and their citizens. The issues we are working on range from tackling poor air quality, to helping people find their way around cities, to improving green spaces, to collecting waste more efficiently. These are practical issues that impact people’s everyday lives in urban environments. 

I see lots of potential in 'big data', we are exploring ways to make it available for innovation whilst respecting the privacy of individuals

How are new technologies helping tackle the problem of urban integration?

Technology is becoming ever more pervasive. For example, there are now more mobile phones in the world than there are toilets! These new technologies, and the data they provide, can help us understand how people move around and interact with cities and how well services are functioning. They can then help city planners design things better, and they can help people use what’s available more effectively – for examples there are lots of apps to help people navigate our cities and make better use of the transport system. 

Which one new innovation is getting you excited at the moment?         

I see lots of potential in ‘big data’, we are exploring ways to make it available for innovation whilst respecting the privacy of individuals. Cities collect a lot of data, from how people travel to work, to air quality to the locations of public toilets and soap dispensers. They’re opening up this data back to citizens who can use it to build new apps or tools to help making cities more efficient, safer and enjoyable. 

What are the barriers facing start-ups who try to introduce new innovations into their city?

Many of the innovations that will make cities better will only work when they are applied across a whole city. For example, what use would London’s bike hire scheme be with only a handful of bikes? Start-ups will often struggle to test and deploy their idea – whether it is a new air quality sensor or smart parking scheme – at sufficient scale. We help them with this, and we also provide advice on how to find their way around the different institutions and procurement rules in cities, which can often be baffling for a small company. 

How will the London of 20 years’ time most noticeably differ from the London of today?

Physically, our capital will look very similar: the buildings, public transport system and patterns of streets will be much the same. Yet we will see digital intelligence layered over and embedded in this physical infrastructure, connecting different systems with each other in real time. Like other cities, London will be feeling the impacts of climate change: it will be much hotter at times, because of the ‘urban heat island’ effect. And although London is currently well protected against flooding, it will be at risk from heavy rainfall, rising sea levels and storm surges.

There’ll also be more people, we are expecting the city to grow by well over a million residents – equivalent to adding Birmingham to London! Despite this, I expect London to maintain its role as an economic and cultural powerhouse and premier world city. 

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