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Smarter than we think

Brendan P. Foster Brendan P. Foster

The majority of Irish people would probably not consider their capital to be in any way smart. It might scrub up well for major occasions like centenary celebrations and sporting hero homecomings but when it comes to smartness of the technology kind the general view would be that the Fair City has some way to go in that department.

That rather jaundiced view might be coloured by the received images we have of smart cities from sci-fi writers, Hollywood, and a veritable legion of futurologists. These sources have collectively offered a dystopian view of future cities which could be straight out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The shape of things to come in those forecasts sees every moment of everyone’s lives monitored and analysed by a kind of ethics-free cyber-Stasi who patrol the skies in flying cars; decisions on who qualifies for healthcare are taken on the basis of “usefulness to society tests”; while basic choices such as where to live, work and have our children educated are taken away and trusted to supposedly omniscient and infallible algorithms.

Dublin is certainly not smart in those terms and we should be glad. We can also rest assured that this will almost certainly never come to pass as these outcomes aren’t what smart cities are about at all, according to Grant Thornton partner Brendan Foster.

“It is all about improving quality of life”, he says. “It is not about controlling people or their lives, it is about lots of different technologies and quite small things that can make our lives better. Dublin is doing quite well in this regard. Last November there was a smart city expo in Barcelona and Dublin was recognised there as being a smart city leader. This can be hard for Irish people to appreciate but it goes back to people’s understanding of smart city.”

Foster speaks from a position of considerable authority on this matter as a former president of Dublin Chamber of Commerce, one of the organisations which has been at the forefront of smart city developments in Dublin for the last number of years.

“Dublin Chamber published its Vision for Dublin 2050 document a few years ago”, he points out. “The aim was to explore the need for better long-term planning in the Dublin region. That was followed by The Great Dublin Survey which captured the ideas, hopes, wants and aspirations of more than 20,000 people who responded to it. Dublin currently ranks outside the top 30 cities in the world when it comes to quality of life. Dublin needs to rise up those rankings and becoming a smart city will play a key role in that improvement.”

Real progress is being made in that regard, he adds. “The Smart Dublin initiative is an example of this. The four Dublin local authorities have come together to engage with smart technology providers, researchers and citizens to solve challenges and improve city life. The aim is to position Dublin as a world leader in the development of new urban solutions, using open data, and with the city region as a test bed.”

The objectives of Smart Dublin are to provide better public services to citizens;  promote innovative solutions to existing and future challenges faced by citizens, businesses and visitors; improve economic activity by helping to create an ecosystem that attracts and provides opportunities for entrepreneurs, investors and businesses; and increase collaboration and engagement with local authorities, other public sector organisations, academia, external agencies, businesses, citizens and international partners.

“This isn’t about huge advances”, Foster reiterates. “For example, Leap cards, real time passenger information displays at bus stops, and synchronised smart traffic lights to smooth traffic flows and ease congestions are all smart city technologies which contribute to the quality of our lives. Our City Bike scheme is recognised as being among the best of its kind anywhere and that’s also a smart city initiative.”

The success of this initiative was highlighted last November when Smart Dublin was selected as one of the finalists of the World Smart Cities Awards in the city category last November. The Dublin submission was entitled ‘The small enough yet big enough smart city test bed for the world’.

Another initiative he points to is the Smart Docklands project. Billed as creating the world’s most connected business and living district, the objective is to bring the huge concentration of technology companies located in Dublin’s Docklands together with SMEs, residents, local authorities, and research organisations to solve a range of challenges.

“Vodafone, Cisco, Google, Facebook and others are involved and again they are coming up with a range of simple but important solutions to improve people’s lives”, he says. “These include sensors on bins and drains to let the local authority know when they are overflowing. These might sound like very small things, but they are very important to the people who live in an area. After all, who wants litter blowing around the streets or drains overflowing outside their house?”

These are just two of the more significant smart city projects being undertaken at present. “There is a huge amount of stuff going on and a lot of it is under the radar”, says Foster. “Just because people are not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I am chair of the Ireland Hong Kong Business Forum and we recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Hong Kong Smart City Consortium on the smart city agenda. A delegation from Hong Kong is coming to Dublin to learn about what we are doing here. That’s an indication of the international recognition there is for Dublin as a leader in the smart city space.”

He acknowledges the key role played by Dublin’s community of high tech companies. “They are leading a lot of the change in this regard”, he says. “They are the ones who are investing in smart buildings and backing initiatives like the Smart Docklands project. This is a very exciting collaboration. Businesses see the benefit of having a smart city and they are paying for it. There is also a start-up initiative to attract tech entrepreneurs into the city and make them part of the ecosystem. You can’t have a smart city if only the big guys are doing it. You need local entrepreneurs and small businesses as they know the city best.”

There needs to be a greater awareness of Dublin’s achievements in the smart city space, he believes. “We need to appreciate all the things being done here. I think people can sometimes be surprised to learn that Ireland is recognised internationally as a smart city leader. There is such an amount of good stuff going on and people should be made aware of it. The four local authorities are making vast amounts of data available to businesses to enable them develop smart solutions for our city. This could result in some very exciting developments in where people choose to live, how they get in and out of the city, how we monitor and manage our air and water quality and so much more. The future is bright and it’s great to be able to say that Dublin is a lot smarter than some people might think.”