“Hey City, why are you so smart?” was the provocative question passed to a panel of five experts I had the privilege to moderate at “Start-up Cities Conference” at the Asia Pacific Weeks in Berlin on May 14th, 2019.

The smart city is a vision for the future and it is a vision of cities that are sophisticated yet nice to live in. Most movies that have picked up the relationship between cities and technology have presented us with dystopian futures. In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola set his movie Blade Runner in a system of total surveillance, where the distinction between humans and cyborgs has faded, food is artificially created and … In 1958, Jacques Tati’s comedy Mon Oncle made the audience laugh when the main character battles to cooperate with automated, smart building components and new transparent building materials, which create stubborn obstacles rather than anticipating human behavior.

Movie directors are master of drama and entertainment. In this panel, Dr Iris Belle, Drees & Sommer Blue Cities, talked with experts across digital processes, innovation, impact investment, regional planning and urbanism about their take on smart cities.

For Dr. Martin Klein, Global Head of Industry Business Unit for Public Sector at SAP, the smart city uses data to develop digital services. The purpose here is to steer the big trends of our age – urban growth and economic growth – in an orderly way.

Luis Sarre, Head of Innovation at InnOvatio, Co-Founder and CEO at Free Entrepreneurs, unpacked the layers of a smart city. According to his experience smart cities set themselves apart from other cities by a layer of sensors, a platform layer, a network layer and an app layer. In the smarter cities, actors and institutions from the governmental sector, the economic sector and civil society have access to all layers. Luis Sarre also gave a very tangible example he is currently working on, Toilet Revolution, a project that upgrades public toilets in Shanghai. Here sensors detect odor, users can order cleaning or repair, and setting toilets up as a network makes it possible to suggest alternative toilets to users while repair and maintenance is ongoing. The novelty here is that existing data is converted to a format that can be stored, compared and analyzed in scale. Such data is no longer isolated and can be put in relation to other urban processes.

Lu Ying, Co-founder & CEO of Future Urban Living, stressed the need for a deeper purpose behind digitalization efforts. A circular economy expert, she stated that all data needed to analyses processes is available. Yet, we have food waste. Smart cities can avoid such wastes if they not only access, analyze and revise processes with data but manage to overcome compartmental use of data and data platforms to reach narrowly defined goals.

Theresa Mathawaphan, Chief Strategy Officer at the National Innovation Agency Thailand, shard that in her job as a public sector representative, smart cities become superior if boundary of information sharing platforms lie beyond municipal administrative units.  Theresa works towards a Thailand-wide network of Innovation Districts she calls eco-system, where experiences with new digital approaches are discussed, compared and awareness is built and innovation can flourish.

One of the aspects Luis Sarre sees most challenging are to start and implement use cases. His experiences with “Toilet Revolution” have taught him the importance of prototypes.

The projects Amanda Zheng, Principal at China Impact Ventures, is funding mainly offer Software as a Service (SaaS). According to Amanda, the design of human-machine interaction is still challenging. She mentioned that for her AI is not only the acronym of Artificial Intelligence but also the Chinese word for “love”. In her view smartness is not the single most important criteria for the city of the future. Human-machine interactions need to show the same good manners as human-human interactions.

In terms of challenges the panel largely agreed that they are still present at all levels: user interface, indicators, sensors, algorithms, and most importantly an educated foresight about the processes results of a smart city application can trigger. In this context Theresa Mathawaphan explained the near impossibility to standardize a City Index. Dr Martin Klein pointed out that each tech product must respond to a social need and therefore cannot be developed in isolation. Data from different sources need to be merged to eliminate confounding factors and find real causes to problems. He illustrated his point with a project launched for children of drug addicts. The study used data from different sources and lags in child development could be attributed to nutrition rather than the drug history of parents. In the case of “Report a Pothole”, the city of Orlando asks residents to call maintenance to repair roads and make them safer. Beyond operational data – location of the pothole – operational time is an important indicator for the quality of the municipal service. This way of looking at problems, making operations transparent and solving problems builds up level of trust between citizens and governments using smart city strategies which is crucial to reach smartness. For Lu Ying, cities like businesses they are products of economic opportunities. Without customers there is no economic transaction. Companies like Alibaba have built their success with highly skilled employees. They selling things people want with an interface that is pleasant and easy to use. Because they are a company competing on the market the need for transparency of processes is almost prohibitive. For cities the challenge is slightly different. Cities crucially rely on the knowledge and level of education of citizens and civil servants to keep processes and strategies fully transparent. Without digital literacy, stakeholders won’t understand processes, transparency is hard to achieve and support impossible to solicit.

Talking about challenges can be discouraging at times. Making wishes gives hope. In the final discussion round each expert stated one wish, describing a condition under which smart cities are most likely to evolve. Luis Sarre, wished for more feedback from users, from suppliers and from actors from all streams of the value chain. Amanda Zheng said that in terms of regulations, the common good, the collective long-term benefit should be the overriding aim. Dr. Martin Klein observes that currently usage of data is discussed in isolation, in a technology driven way. He wishes to see a more balanced discussion about the usage of data. Theresa Mathawaphan shared that building a smart city is nothing different than change management. Ideally the discussion about data usage needs to include the emotional and psychological level and deal with change averse mindsets.

The panelists was composed of:

Luis Sarre, Head of Innovation at InnOvatio, Co-Founder and CEO at Free Entrepreneurs

Dr. Martin Klein, Global Head of Industry Business Unit for Public Sector at SAP

Theresa Mathawaphan, Chief Strategy Officer at the National Innovation Agency Thailand (Public Organization)

Amanda Zheng, Principal at China Impact Ventures

Lu Ying, Co-founder & CEO of Future Urban Living