Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: 2022 could be the year of smart cities

Smart cities – the phrase itself doesn’t tell us much, as the word “smart” can mean quite a few different things. In principle, however, just as the next level of mobile phone in the time of digitalisation is a smartphone, in cities, the next step is a smart city.

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia describes a smart city as “an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of Things (IoT) such as sensors to collect data and use insights gained from that data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently. “

IBM designates a smart city as “a city that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to understand better and control its operations and optimise the use of limited resources.”

In simple words, a smart city strives to improve its inhabitants’ efficiency and quality of life with the help of digital technologies. These technologies usually include information and communication technology – ICT. A smart city can improve its functions and services and accelerate economic growth through data analysis.

One of the essential technologies for smart cities is the Internet of Things (IoT). Data collected from devices connected over the Internet of Things (IoT) are stored in the cloud or on servers, enabling efficiency improvements in the public and private sectors and more significant economic benefits and improved lives for the population.

Among other things, smart cities use programming interfaces (APIs), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, control panels, machine learning, communication between devices, and wireless mesh networks (WMN).

Today, we have a vast amount of technology at our disposal to digitise a particular city. Still, it’s mostly about how we use that technology and not how much technology is available.

The extent to which a city is “smart” can be determined with a view at various factors: infrastructure based on technology, environmental initiatives, efficient and functional public transport, solid and advanced city development plans, and people who live and work in the city and use its resources.

Smart parking can make it easier for residents to find a free spot. Photo: Asmag.
Smart parking can make it easier for residents to find a free spot. Photo: Asmag.

With a combination of different technologies, we can develop solutions that will improve the above factors. One of the essential solutions is smart parking, enabling residents to find a parking space faster and digitally pay the parking charges (card, digital wallets, etc.).

Another example is a smart traffic management system, which would allow transport flow monitoring and automatic adjustment of traffic lights to reduce the possibility of congestion. In addition, digital traffic control would allow for various improvements in other areas, such as the dimming of public lighting when the road is empty, thus saving electricity.

Evolution of smart cities in recent times

In recent years, smart cities have received quite a bit of criticism for over-promising and under-delivering, as such projects are expected to hold great promise, but not enough of it has materialised. However, due to a combination of new government funding and what experts say is a shift in perspective about how to approach these projects—from tech-first to resident-first—smart-city experts told us they’re optimistic about the prospects in 2022, reported at Morning Brew.

“What we’re seeing now is that you can have connectivity, electrification, and autonomy. You don’t have to just pick one,” Karen Lightman, executive director of the Metro21 Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “We can, with some catalyst investment money from the federal government, encourage the private sector to come in, and jobs can be created. I really feel like 2022 is the year.”

Also, in Europe, some cities have invested quite a bit of money in digitisation. In the Spanish city of Barcelona, Wi-Fi infrastructure and the Internet of Things (IoT) have been well developed, making it one of the most connected cities in the world.

There are various sensors hidden on city streets that can measure noise, traffic, pollution, congestion and even the number of selfies that people post in a specific market. They can be found on public lighting poles, rubbish bins, and in the asphalt of parking lots.

Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Dezeen.
Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Dezeen.

The investment saved the city about €52 million on water, generated €45 million in annual parking revenue and created 47,000 new jobs. Cisco predicts the digitalisation of Barcelona will bring cumulative economic benefits worth €870 million by 2026.

Privacy issues

With the development of computers and smartphones, the issue of privacy has also evolved. Social networks as such have given this issue a whole new meaning. Understandably, the development of smart cities and the spread of technology in this area would again shake the foundations of individual privacy or, in this case, an inhabitant of a smart city.

Quite a few projects have been discarded precisely because of privacy issues. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of giant Google, embarked on a project in 2019 to track mobility patterns to show how people move through a city.

In Portland, authorities wanted insight into the privacy of residents. Photo: Kayak.
In Portland, authorities wanted insight into the privacy of residents. Photo: Kayak.

The city of Portland, Oregon, was working with Sidewalk Labs to develop a plan on the movement of people through city streets, which would be crucial in helping officials plan mobility investments, reduce traffic jams, and improve the quality of life of residents.

Less than two years later, the project was shelved because they disagreed on data protection and privacy for residents. According to reports, the Portland authorities allegedly requested access to population data, but Sidewalk Labs or later Replica did not agree. “We believe better insights should not come at the cost of personal privacy,” the company said.

In addition to the issue of privacy, of course, there is also the issue of cyber-security. It is known that hacking can also occur where there is an internet connection, so cyber security is even more critical in smart cities. Above all, it is necessary to ensure that smart cities are protected from cyber-attacks, hacking, and data theft while ensuring that the reported data is accurate.

Citizens must also have confidence in the security of smart cities, which means that government, private sector enterprises, software developers, device manufacturers, energy providers and network service operators must work together to deliver integrated solutions with core security objectives.

The first goal can be described as availability. Data needs to be available in real-time with reliable access. This is the only way to make sure it performs the function of monitoring various parts of smart city infrastructure.

Then comes integrity. The data must not only be available, but it must also be accurate. This also means safeguarding against external manipulation.

The data managed by the smart city is extremely sensitive, so confidentiality is paramount. Data needs to be kept confidential and safe from unauthorised access, which can mean using firewalls or anonymising data. Anonymisation is a data processing technique that removes or modifies personally identifiable information.

The last fundamental goal in data protection, however, is accountability. System users need to be accountable for their actions and interactions with sensitive data systems should there be any problems. It is necessary to keep user logs, which record who accesses the information.

Digitising cities and setting up smart systems for urban and rural areas can bring many benefits to people worldwide. In this way, we can improve the quality of life and ensure sustainability and the best possible use of limited resources.

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: Smart cities, digitisation, Europe, life.


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.