by Jeff Fish, MEM ’14
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Ken Geisler, Vice President, Strategy, Siemens Smart Grid, in an EDGE Seminar on Nov. 20, 2013 at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Ken Geisler of Siemens Corp. spoke recently in the EDGE Seminar about the opportunities of, and obstacles to, the evolution of “smart cities,” and smart grids in particular. The company’s smart grid division vice president built a strong case for integrating technology across our energy infrastructure, which will be essential to resilient and sustainable systems in the future. Geisler primarily addressed the engineering aspects of smart grids. If only it were that simple.
Beyond technological challenges, smart grids, and smart cities in general, must overcome significant societal barriers that are much more nuanced and potentially intractable. The internet is a useful parallel to explore these challenges. As the foundation of the information age, the internet is responsible for unleashing a new era of technology, innovation, and economic growth. It caused a paradigm shift in communication and created new opportunities for education and individual empowerment. In recent years, the internet facilitated the Great Recession, boosted the Arab Spring, backboned a global surveillance program, and threatened a president’s signature law.
Like the internet, smart cities are founded on the promise of technology delivering a new level of innovation and efficiency to benefit our lives.
And as the world becomes increasingly urban and our environment increasingly stressed, smart cities offer a path to a sustainable future. Smart cities may be inevitable, but parallels to the internet indicate a path strewn with obstacles and detours.
The internet grew on a wave of technology – microchips, fiber optics, and the invention of the world wide web. Similarly, smart cities rely on distributed sensors to measure and record data, and networks to connect them. These elements feed into the big data revolution, able to store, process, and extract new types of information and create new efficiencies. For example, demand side management gives electricity customers the ability to control their use based on real time signals in order to protect the grid, save money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By 2019, demand side management could uncover $59 billion of societal benefit in the U.S. Similar opportunities exist in traffic management, public transportation, and building energy management. This first wave of “smartness” – efficiency – is difficult to protest.
The capturing, storage, and analysis of such data also creates new opportunities to improve security and prevent crime. Welfare protection is a fundamental aspect of a municipality’s purpose, but like the internet, smart city tools open a Pandora’s box of privacy concerns. Following 9/11, the internet became a key tool for protecting American soil from future terrorist attacks. But the recent exposure of the NSA’s covert surveillance program’s breadth, targets, and purposes has triggered a widespread backlash from individuals, major corporations, and governments. Similarly, cities are introducing powerful surveillance technologies and are beginning to face resistance. Technologies like gunshot mapping, license plate tracking, and AI-assisted security camera networks aide law enforcement in major U.S. cities. Objections are being raised, but it’s still early to know where cities will find a balance between surveillance and privacy. The international internet privacy debate – still in its infancy – indicates it will be a long and complex process.
Another challenge to an internet-connected world is security. Today, cyber-attacks are considered one of the greatest national security threats. They are employed by criminals, terrorist organizations, and opposing nations. The Stuxnet worm, attributed to the U.S. and Israel, disrupted Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The Chinese military is believed to be behind technology thefts and attempts to silence critics. Several weeks ago, it appeared that the Stuxnet worm inadvertently infected a Russian nuclear power plant. As smart cities seek a connected infrastructure, opportunities for and exposure to cyber-attacks will grow exponentially.
A final translatable element of the internet revolution is social media. Programs like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, combined with mobile phones, have redefined communication and information sharing. In 2010, social media helped overthrow oppressive regimes during the Arab Spring. Yet in 2012, it spread misinformation to Egyptians who subsequently attacked the U.S. embassy in Cairo. These two examples highlight that technology isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s the application that matters. Most people have accepted the cost-benefit tradeoff of social media. They see the value, agree to the terms of service, and trust the companies aren’t using their personal data for nefarious purposes. Silicon Valley showed how important they believe this pact to be when they excoriated the U.S. government over backdoor spying programs.
Smart cities employing social media are unlikely to be successful without similarly gaining trust and offering value. And because municipal governments can’t claim to protect their data and software in the name of competitive advantage, their programs are likely to face greater scrutiny and demands for transparency. Anthony Townsend, an urban planning researcher at NYU and the Institute of the Future, said that beyond the data, “it’s the algorithms in government that need to be brought out to the light of day.”
Townsend’s comment underscores the unique challenge faced by smart cities seeking to earn public trust, access data, and leverage it effectively. While security programs at the national level are buffered from individual privacy concerns and private companies are protected by commercial interests, municipalities straddle a difficult middle ground. They must better lives, support economic growth, and balance budgets. In an era of smart cities, opportunities exist to further each of these missions, but accomplishing them together may prove to be extremely challenging.