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Boyd Cohen on the Future of Smart Cities
Lily Maxwell28. May 201916 min read

Boyd Cohen on the Future of Smart Cities

The importance of smart cities & smart citizens: In our interview series, smart city leaders comment on the future of smart cities, the role of technology, and the benefits for citizens. In our second interview of the series, we have asked urban strategist and smart city expert Boyd Cohen to share his expertise, thoughts and insights with us on a number of important smart city topics.

As someone who has shaped the vision of smart cities, how did you get into urban issues?

boyd-cohen-portraitI think part of it was just a natural evolution of my own life experiences. Where you live affects your view of the world: I’ve been a citizen of the world and lived in many different cities - Madrid, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Vancouver, Victoria, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Denver, Boulder, and several others along the way. And I started to grow an appreciation for cities’ differences - how some cities were more sustainable, greener, how quality of life seemed to vary a lot from city to city.

Another major factor in my own original conceptualization of sustainability and why cities were so important to me was the global geopolitical climate when I was writing my first book with Hunter Loving called Climate Capitalism. This book was about how we can transform our economy to a low-carbon one and how that could be a net positive even for industry, but at the time everyone in the world was still looking at nations, and the United Nations, as the major lever to achieve climate action. I remember that when we were finishing the book, Obama was going to Copenhagen and everyone thought he was going to save the day and get an aggressive climate accord. But, as we all know, that never happened and things went downhill from there. This was 2009, and I started looking around and saying, “I’ve lost all faith in multilateral processes for achieving climate action, where can we get action happening faster, or where is it already happening on the ground?” Although I was already doing things in cities, I hadn’t made all the connections yet, and I quickly came to realize the power of cities and city networks like ICLEI, the conference of mayors, the C40 initiative and many others. I had a eureka moment, and realized that these city networks, where mayors seemed to be leading the charge, were crucial in terms of implementing tangible climate and sustainability action.

So I think those were the two things: my own life experiences moving around the world and dealing with my own frustration with the pace of change at the multi-national level.

How did studying business and management inform your take on city management and transformation?

I probably became more aware of the intersection between the economy and the city through my background. My PhD is in entrepreneurship and I’ve always looked at things through the lens of innovation and entrepreneurship. In my work, I directly apply these concepts in order to understand how cities can transform their own internal processes, applying some of the processes from the innovation and entrepreneurship world to the public-sector, like procurement for innovation. Another example: a colleague of mine from the Netherlands and I did a project called “Happy Citizens”, looking at the intersection of smart cities and human-centered design thinking, for which we re-positioned the smart cities wheel from a human-centered design thinking approach. So I think my background encouraged me to explore the intersection between urban issues and innovation and entrepreneurship across the board - both in terms of how cities manage themselves and what kinds of innovators and entrepreneurial activities are actually starting to coalesce in cities, and how cities can encourage more of that. My career has been a merger of those things.

How do we ensure that smart cities are also sustainable?

Maybe because the way I came to smart cities was through thinking about sustainability and climate change and cities, I’ve really never been able to separate the two. For me a smart city has to be baking in the sustainability agenda to be ‘smart’ - so even the way I developed the smart cities wheel, for example, involved so much sustainability embedded in it from an environmental and social perspective. I guess I would say that for any city to aspire to be a smart city, they better be seriously committed to becoming sustainable. The two ideas are not necessarily mutual and inclusive though - in the sense that I don’t believe that you can be on the journey to become a smart city and not be committed to sustainability, but you could maybe be committed to sustainability and barely be thinking about the ‘smart city’. Think of it like a venn diagram: one is almost subsumed within the other, but the other one (sustainability) is more independent.

But to address your question: every time anyone looks at processes or whether one thing is more sustainable than the other, it’s always tricky to come to any conclusions because there are so many interconnecting aspects. If developed smartly as part of an implementation for an IoT solution, even if a smart initiative does consume more energy than the most direct process it may be replacing, if you look at the broader effect, it will be more sustainable.

I’ll give you an example: if people could manage all of their interactions with city hall through a website (e-governance) without ever going to city hall, the consumption of energy by the end-user in their house using the website would probably be less than the amount produced by the office that the city was running before, the travel by the people going to city hall etc. If you just focus on pure energy consumption, you can also miss things - like what about the impact on quality of life? What costs are associated with the paper production and the environmental impact of all that? What about people who are having a hard time finding a place to park? With 25% of our street clogged with people looking to park to go into city office to make a payment, that’s not insignificant. So what I’m trying to say is that although not every IoT solution has a proven net sustainability benefit, I think we have to look at the whole cost of the system you’re trying to replace or improve or enhance, and be more certain that it is actually more or less sustainable.

But another thing I would say, beyond that point, is that obviously our cities need to decarbonize their energy supply, and that means moving the grid completely not only to renewables but also to distributed energy - like neighborhood-based energy projects. Once you do that, to a certain extent you can consume all the energy you want - I mean I’m exaggerating a little bit - but if your energy supply is primarily 100% carbon-neutral and renewable, then you can afford to spend more energy to offer these services. So it’s the combination of both of those things in my opinion - it’s looking at the whole cost of the solution and the benefits - social and environmental - that they can generate. And it’s also about transitioning our energy supply to be renewable and local.

How realistic is it that we will be producing distributed, renewable energy soon? Will we be able to move towards that in time for us to significantly reverse the effects of burning carbon? Depending on the city, of course.

I 100% believe it’s possible. The technology is there and the cost differentials are declining rapidly in terms of comparing the cost of providing fossil-fuel energy to renewables. In fact, if you factored in all the externalities of fossil fuels, it would already be cheaper to be using renewables in cities. There are 100 cities in the world that are already 70% renewable, and several cities already aim to be 100% renewable by 2050 or 2100. So there’s already a massive push on this all around the world. You said it right when you said it depends on the city, but what I think depends, or varies, is what renewable energy supplies each city taps into - not whether some cities can or some can’t do renewables. There’s wasted energy from industrial facilities, geothermal, wind, solar, biomass from waste, incineration from landfill, and more - there’s recovery of heat and cooling from adjacent waterways. And every single above example exists in a city already today.

It’s not like I’m making this stuff up or they’re futuristic ideas: all of these things are happening and it’s about understanding what your renewable energy niche is as a city, which options are most viable for you, and then figuring out ways to incentivize people to use those options. There’s so much growth now in peer to peer energy trading, raising questions over how you can encourage citizens themselves to be part of the solution. Allow citizens to actually generate energy and then they sell it back to their neighbors when they have excess, creating an ideal situation for everyone. There are so many solutions that already exist today and it’s just about scaling them, and indeed they’re starting to scale already.

Lots of ‘smart’ pilot projects implemented in cities are not ultimately scaled or replicated in other cities. How do you think we ensure that the successful smart projects are scaled and sustained?

There are a lot of underlying factors here. Firstly, there are political concerns - for instance, some regulatory environments are not conductive to scaling. In most cities around the world, the Mayor is elected for four years and he/she wants their picture next to project they’ve designed and developed themselves, so they throw out plans from the last mayor and start all over. There are also other regulatory barriers: in Spain, if you try to generate your own energy, you actually have to pay tax on the equivalent amount of energy you would have consumed from the energy company because the lobbyists are too strong.

Then there are financial barriers - like how do you go from a pilot, which may be co-funded by a private company just to test their technology (but the city or company don’t have the mechanisms for funding the scaling of that project) to a full-scale, long-term solution? There’s some cool stuff happening around crypto - as you know I do a lot in blockchain and crypto - and there are projects happening where cities are looking at introducing their own local crypto coins or tokens with the goal of it becoming a mechanism for decentralizing investment in municipal infrastructures. Instead of being reliant on pension funds and other massive large institutional investors, through this technology they can enable citizens and smaller investor groups to put money into municipal bonds through a crypto investment in their local city. Overall, I think there are some really cool things that are happening in that space around how to solve the financing issue.

There are also a lot of problems around business models that some are trying to solve; for example, instead of retrofitting all buildings in the city and paying upfront, some companies are offering solutions where they retrofit the buildings and then charge the city a percentage of the energy saving over the years until they get their ROI. This kind of innovative business model allows the private sector to bear the costs but then share the profits further down the road. We’re also seeing a lot of progress around not just scaling but replicating around the world - there’s so much good work happening around city networks - like ICF, C40 etc. One of the reasons these networks exist is to share use-cases and knowledge and diffuse that - and that’s why we actually created the blockchain cities alliance - to start raising awareness among cities about all the different kinds of use-cases that could be interesting for them to adopt and get projects and standards developed so that you could do e.g. cross-city projects and all that.

As you say, you are currently doing a lot of work in the blockchain space - what is the potential for blockchain in cities? Will we be able to implement it sustainably?

Blockchain is still in its infancy. Due to the underlying technology, the blockchains themselves are not capable of being scaled very easily at the moment. However, I predict that this will be fixed over the next 12-24 months. We’re in the nascency stage: think back to the early stages of the internet, when we had dialled-up internet, dial-up modems etc. and everything was super slow and the content was awful, and you couldn’t find things easily. Well we’re kind of in that stage now with blockchain, except the volume of people and money and experts going into blockchain right now is insane, which means that we’re going to accelerate way faster from dial-up internet to what we know of the internet today, but in the blockchain world. Instead of the evolution of blockchain happening over 25 years, as with the internet, its acceleration is going to happen over the next 3-5 years I think.

Your current project, iomob, is focusing on leveraging the power of blockchain for urban mobility. What is the end-goal and vision of this project?

For the end-user, the goal is to enable seamless access to intermobile public and private mobility services so that they can discover, route, book and pay for any mobility service through an open application. This will better solve the problem of first and last-mile travel. It should also incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship, as mobility startups will be able to compete on a more level playing field because they’ll have access to an open-network effect, and also to our technologies so they don’t have to build it all themselves. The idea is to facilitate better intermobile experiences so that people have access to all the mobility services in their city through the app on their phones.

Right now you might have 12-15 apps for all the different mobility services in your city, but nothing allows you to easily carry out intermobile routing. So maybe the best route for you is to take a bike share to the train station, but you can’t really access that journey on any service today. There are a couple that are now introducing this kind of thing - but there are almost no services available around the world that allow you to do this kind of interoperability of different mobility services to find the best route for you. That’s the end-goal for the end-user, and then there’s another argument for the benefits to cities and providers.

How do you feel about big tech companies having a monopoly on people’s data and digital infrastructure in cities?

There have been many debates about the role of the private-sector in smart cities since the beginning of smart cities and opinions really vary from person to person. I am on the fence about it. I feel like we have to have private-sector involvement, because governments don’t have the necessary funding or innovation capabilities to solve every problem that cities are facing. Of course, I am interested in co-creation with citizens so that’s an alternative that could help to remove our dependence on massive, private companies. I also believe strongly in cities decentralizing economic opportunities, like using some of the municipal budget to encourage local entrepreneurs to solve local problems. But I do think there’s still space for large companies in all of this. Things like massive renewable energy facilities are very expensive and require specialist knowledge; for projects or facilities like this, larger companies, with their financial and internal expertise capabilities, are needed. So, on the one hand, I think it’s wrong to just say big companies are evil and bad and that we need to eliminate them from cities and city infrastructure. But, on the other, I also think we need more controls over them because unfortunately they are usually incentivized by capitalist drivers, which are often not aligned with the interests of cities or citizens.

So you think we do need some kind of regulation around tech/innovation - how should we go about regulating? And how do we balance innovation and regulation?

I think a lot of cities and national governments are playing around with things called sandboxes where cities/companies can experiment without regulation in limited areas. I like this idea, because cities can never keep up with the pace of innovation or implement predictive regulation: they can’t foresee what regulation will be required 5 years from now, because they don’t know what’s going to emerge 5 years from now. So sandboxes are a good way to do that - to say, alright, under certain conditions you can test a technology or project and we’ll watch the experiment and then decide.

I think cities should regulate better access to the data of the projects that are being undertaken in their city. They should say “if you want to run a ride and hail service like Uber in my city, the only way you’re going to be legally allowed to do it is if your data is open - so that we can see how many trips happen per day, what the fees are, etc.”. Cities need to make sure that taxi drivers are paid minimum wage, plus other requirements, so they need to know this stuff. That example demonstrates that there are some things that could probably be standardized regardless of what solution emerges.

But then there are other things that are just too hard to predict - things like blockchain and AI, where there’s so much crazy innovation happening, that cities are no way going to be able to stay on top of it. Sometimes they have to retroactively regulate, which is what has been happening a lot in the sharing economy and other spaces.

Finally, where do you see the future of smart cities in conjunction with sustainability, and what do you think is the next big thing in the smart cities space?

I have a combination of answers - I would say blockchain and AI are going to be massive for smart cities. I’m a very big believer in the idea of citizen co-creation for policy, for projects, for budgeting (think participatory budgeting), for everything really. So in the short and medium term, those might be the things for me where I think we’re going to see massive adoption and innovation happening. Then in the medium and long term I think even the term smart cities might disappear and be replaced with something else - “human-centric cities”, “livable cities” or “happy cities”. I hope we’ll see an evolution of the concept so that technology plays a role but it’s only seen as an enabler of something more important than being smart or technologically-advanced - that it becomes more about citizen wellbeing.

There’s been that underlying conversation on and off in and on the borders of the smart cities movement for around 3 to 4 years, but I feel like it’s becoming pretty significant now. The problem is that people need to gravitate towards a movement, or brand, or aim that is encompassing enough - that embraces what everyone thinks a city should be about, and doesn’t exclude major factions of stakeholders. I guess as a society we haven’t yet found one single movement that’s encapsulated everything that has also taken off fully, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we find one soon. Once we do, it may change the narrative and the discussion about what are we trying to do with our cities.

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Lily Maxwell

Lily is a freelance writer, translator and content-creator, specialised in smart cities and urbanism. After studying at the University of Cambridge, she moved to Barcelona and is now based between Spain and England, working with several different urban-focused European organisations. She speaks French, Spanish and English, and aims to tackle German and Italian next!