The dangers of smart cities

According to the McKinsey consulting firm, by 2020, there will be some 600 smart cities around the world, and the Smart City market will top $1.5 trln. Russia is keeping up with the trend – in the next five years, it plans to spend at least RUR 360 bln ($5.6 bln) on the Smart City federal project, and all 100,000 plus towns will have intellectual infrastructure in various sectors of their economy, from healthcare to transport. What problems will their residents face as part of the transformation? What can stand in the way of the innovation? These questions were the focus of the ‘What should a Russian smart city be like?’ roundtable discussion organized by Invest Foresight business magazine and the Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences as part of the Engineering the Future Club project.

We can do without 5G

A smart city of the future will primarily operate as a large database optimizing and coordinating the moves of ‘everyone and everything.’ It is quite achievable, technologically, Invest Foresight Managing Editor Konstantin Frumkin said in his opening remarks. The level of technological development is the least of the possible limitations for modern smart city scenarios, the participants admitted.

Even with the vague prospects for 5G technology entering the Russian market, it is quite possible even now to launch a wide range of Internet of Things-based solutions as one of the key smart city components. Dmitry Bankov, a researcher at the IITP, said GSM and LTE cellular protocols can also be used, adjusted for IoT scenarios. Using them will not even require building a new infrastructure: 2G networks are deployed almost everywhere, which means that the new scenarios can be far-reaching and low-cost.

There is no single technology that would solve all the problems, so probably, a smart city will have to support several different infrastructures,” he added.

Indeed, complex integrated solutions, which would provide for many simultaneous smart scenarios in various sectors of the urban economy, are still a matter of the future.

Billion ruble intellect 

The situation gets more complicated when it comes to financing the projects. A key obstacle for a large-scale implementation of smart cities is their cost, accounting for billions of rubles.

The private-public partnership approach with the involvement of the state could be the solution. To some extent, it is already working: as of the end of 2018, according to the National Public-Private Partnership Center, 80 such projects are being implemented n Russia, including the ones related to photo and video recording and vehicle weight and dimension control on roads, as well as organizing parking space and street lighting. There could have been more of them, but investors have difficulties working in the PPP format: the preparation of PPP projects can take from 9 months to 2 years.

At the same time, the projects, if it was not for the participation of the state, would not look attractive to investors. It is especially obvious with smart cities: for instance, in order to launch smart utilities solutions it will be necessary to renew the existing infrastructure.

“We not only need to install a meter on the pipe, but we also need this pipe to be of certain quality, so that the smart city infrastructure could be used efficiently, so that there would be a point in installing this meter at all,” Vitaly Maksimov said.

Smart risks

Participants in the round table noted that smart cities could appear in the not too distant future. We are surrounded by numerous smart solutions from multiple tariff electricity meters to video surveillance for security purposes. So far this is the domain of private companies. They use surveillance in shops, to counteract long lines and monitor the work of their employees, but there is no reason why this could not be used for the needs of the city, said Mikhail Markov, international products manager at the Ivideon video surveillance company.

However, introducing smart solutions may result not only in digital benefits, associate professor at the faculty of Economic at Lomonosov Moscow State University Magomet Yandiyev said. Along with smart refrigerators and flush toilets, smart governance in the form of artificial intelligence will also enter lives of city residents, which may result in digital dictatorship.  

“A question arises as to who will educate the artificial intelligence that will govern the city and what cases will be used for it to learn”, Magomet Yandiyev noted. 

He cited China’s experience and the “social credit” system existing there that can block citizens from buying railway or other tickets. Invest Foresight Editor-in-Chief Sergei Nikulin reminded of the danger of digital fascism as a result of introducing smart management technologies as well as of the risks of hacking attacks and global database leakages.

“Is there an actual necessity for total involvement of governance – albeit smart – in all areas of a person’s life? Should the city be that smart?” he noted.

“Smart governance transforms into smart fascism rather fast and easily”, says Prof. Yury Vizilter, futurologist and department head at State Research Institute of Aviation Systems.

Yet, he believes that it is realistic to avoid this scenario. Indeed, today AI can implement complicated strategic scenarios better than humans. However, this is rather about methods of optimizing complex models’ work with the use of artificial intelligence – ranging from a refrigerator to a smart city. During the first stage, smart governance will learn through the example of human behavior, but then it will have to act based on the goals set by the society. 

It is the smart governance’s openness and transparence that must become pretty much the key elements of a smart city of the future, the roundtable discussion participants concluded. And, of course, there should be an alternative option to smart cities as there will definitely be those who will choose to live in cities that are ‘non-smart’.

By Olga Blinova

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