Smart cities are good. Could smart nations be better?

Most countries want smart cities. Done well they support and can help drive economic activity, improve the quality of life for a city’s residents in terms of safety and security, and improve communications, infrastructure, service provision, transportation, data access and sharing – and even energy distribution and consumption. 

At the most fundament level, smart cities use technology to find new and more efficient (often automated) ways to solve urban challenges and to support growing urban populations. Executed well, the output from such initiatives includes more data that can be shared between connected people, systems and locations, enabling more effective health and social service delivery. 

For example, smart cities typically incorporate some element of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. With more systems connected, more portable devices, and more sensors interconnected and sharing information, there is a significant task handling and processing the resultant ‘big data’. But big data can drive improvements in governance, and even in social infrastructure. 

At a more micro level, smart buildings – with connected cooling, heating, lighting, security – detecting the presence of people can minimise power consumption and maximise safety and security for users. 

There may also be a business case for providing more specialised services to both enterprises and public sector organisations. Let’s consider a practical health care example taken from work Real Wireless undertook as part of the EC’s 5G TOURS trials. 

5G TOURS was designed to assess the techno-economic viability of smart city uses based on 5G technology. The health initiative, which took place largely around Rennes in France, shows the ability of 5G to serve relevant use cases such as remote health monitoring, emergency situation notification, teleguidance for diagnostics and intervention support, a wireless-enabled operating room and optimal ambulance routing. 

A hospital putting in a dedicated network around its operating theatre and using augmented reality to support the surgeon may improve the level of care received (and hence patient experience), with potential benefits such as reductions in the chances of post-operative complications and related emergency re-admission. The overall health system gets a benefit because fewer patients are going through the system. But would the cost benefits in funding the installation of the wireless network for a hospital convince the funding group –  the hospital trust, perhaps or the government – to pay for it? 

Judging the worth of this initiative may therefore involve looking at the benefit to society as a whole and then making the case for the funding. 

It’s certainly worth reflecting on a major learning from Liverpool 5G, 5G TOURS and other projects we’ve been involved in at Real Wireless: ensure the business case is properly assessed from the outset. These projects can involve significant investments, so it is essential to ensure the cost-benefit analysis strikes the right balance. This is particularly true at a time when, globally, health and other public services are facing reduced spending and overstretched resources.  

But perhaps the single most significant takeaway from all our work in this context is that for smart city investment, the key is to think holistically: it’s rare that single use cases add up to a compelling business case in their own right. Another way of making the same point is that smart city investment should never be supply-side driven – vendors are inclined to overstate the savings implied by the deployment of their products and underestimate how much it costs to roll them out cost-effectively. Right now Real Wireless is working with policy makers to better understand baseline aggregated use case blueprints that maximise smart city ROI for governments and local authorities. 

Can this translate to a national digital transformation policy? Smart infrastructure rollout is planned for a number of major cities but when countries put it on their national agenda they may see the greatest benefits. A good example can be seen in Norway. The country’s Powerhouse collaboration sets out to ensure its buildings generate more energy than they consume, even including their construction and demolition. 

If the shift moves from investing in developing smart capital cities to a broader nationwide policy, then governments have an opportunity to tackle their strategic national priorities via nationwide smart infrastructure. Done well, this will avoid deepening divides between a country’s poor and rich areas. 

As with a smart city rollout, the needs and the potential benefits of a smart national infrastructure must be balanced carefully against its costs. There are many aspects – spectrum, network infrastructure and more – that need to be carefully planned. 

The aim, as ever, is to deliver value and an acceptable return on investment – except of course that the investment would be national rather than regional. Getting it right could be transformative across an entire country. Getting it wrong could be ruinous.