UCL Minds


S1 Ep3: transcript

This week’s episode is all about Smart Cities – but what does that mean in reality? We are living and working in a city where technology is becoming increasingly embedded into the fabric of London. But is this technological freedom improving our lives or is consumer exploitation enslaving us? Should we be resisting or embracing urban technology?

Join the discussion with special guests Dr Sarah Wise and Prof Duncan Wilson from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment, and Kulveer Ranger, UCL alumnus and an expert in digital transformation, and Senior Vice President of Strategy Communications for Atos UK&I

Is London truly a Smart City?

Duncan Wilson  0:03  
You know, we're using the technology to kind of create histories.

Sarah Wise  0:09  
This is Future Cities, the series that brings together some of the people exploring and shaping what our cities could be like in the future. I'm Dr Sarah Wise, a lecturer at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. And in this first six part series, we're looking at the future of London, where I'm speaking to you from at UCL, London's leading multidisciplinary university, with campuses all over the city from Bloomsbury to the vibrant communities surrounding Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, and the urban hub of London in Canary Wharf. Episode Three is about Smart Cities, we are living working, recreating in an ever smarter London. Technology increasingly embedded in the city. Is this technological freedom improving our lives? Or is consumer exploitation enslaving us? Should we resist or embrace urban technology? To help me take on these big questions is Kulveer Ranger, an expert in digital transformation and the Senior Vice President of Strategy Communications for Atos UK and I, along with my colleague, Duncan Wilson, Professor of Connected Environments, also at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. Hi, welcome both of you. Thanks so much for joining me. I'd like to start us off if we could. COVID you used to work in the mayor's office and you were driving the growth of Tech City? Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?

Kulveer Ranger  1:28  
Yeah, I can but I just want to say so, firstly, it's been 28 years since I walked into, I would say hallowed halls of Bartlett. But the Bartlett is not like that. And I had a fantastic time, it was academically challenging. It was mind blowing. It demanded growth. And it demands that you learn how to think all things and more that have held me in good stead through my career ever since I then left University. After a stint in management consultancy almost a decade in which I was involved actually in a number of infrastructure projects. I did join the Mayor's office when Boris Johnson was mayor in 2008, I led the brief for transport and the environment. But I actually asked the Mayor if we could set up a digital office, because there was just an explosion of innovation of excitement of energy going on around technology. And also, I have to say, at that point number 10, then Prime Minister David Cameron, were also pretty excited about this agenda. So there was a lot of political will, which always helps. But actually, the real challenge was that there was a lot of good ideas, a lot of people getting involved in new technology.

Sarah Wise  2:42  
Yeah, no, I think that's I think that's something that I've also seen within an academic context. Duncan, can I ask you, you have been active throughout this period as well. And I know that recently, you've been doing work around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, but you've also been doing some work with the Internet of Things, how does that fit with your work?

Duncan Wilson  3:01  
I spent the sort of 20 years working in industry for people like Aup and tech companies like Intel. And across all that time, what we were basically doing is looking at how can I how we can sense and monitor our built environment in the in the broader sense, this was ranging from things like monitoring the wobbly Millennium Bridge, if you remember that back in early 2000s, through to monitoring things like air quality across Enfield and other boroughs across London. And things like accounting people in offices, which is kind of obviously a pretty topical subject at the moment as we start to look at how many people are getting back into the workplace. But I did recently joined UCL, after a decade or so of being on the industry side, collaborating with them. Three years ago, ended up joining joining as academic staff and rejoined to set up this new programme around connected environments as we're calling it, which is a new Master's programme. That's part of the the faculty of fantastic UCL East development that UCL is doing at the moment. I guess why that it was really exciting to me was because we're essentially kind of setting up this, what we're calling kind of IoT infrastructure, or this, this this idea of a living lab in the campus. And what we're trying to do is kind of have this like this sense of, I suppose, we think of it as data being this material that we can work with, you know, so it's something that we can kind of craft and prototype with. And for me, it's that kind of, like connectivity that gives us a new way to explore and understand our built, I'd say, and our natural environment as well. So when we're talking about kind of cities, it's not just the concrete built form, it's also the natural environment.

Sarah Wise  4:51  
I'm curious you guys have used a bunch of language around with the sort of presence of data, the creation of data, the curation of data and You know, the context of this is this conversation about smart cities? You guys are talking specifically about London, would you say that London is already a smart city?

Kulveer Ranger  5:11  
I kind of flinch. The phrase now Smart City. A lot of people do as well, because it got to a point where everything was becoming about smart, smart was being put in front of every term, you know, a smart coffee than the Smart Water. You know, we had smartphones, we had smart cities, we were going down this route, and it became almost a marketing term, which is fine. But what did it actually mean? what we're doing, we'll be adding a dollop of technology to an activity for a reason. What were the improvements we were getting? Actually, were we dividing things services from being dumb and smart, which is, which is not, you know, the way I was hoping things would evolve? I think I think the terminology around being a future city or being a city in the future is something that interests me more than talking about it being smart, because cities have been smart for quite a while.

Duncan Wilson  6:02  
Yeah, and I think I think as well, there's also this idea that, that smart equals technology, and I'm not sure if I necessarily always put those two things together. So for example, you know, when I think about London being, you know, a smart city, you know, I, you know, I kind of think back to 1637, when, when when Hyde Park was designated as public space. Now, that was a really smart decision, wasn't it to be able to create this fantastic urban asset, you know, the lungs of London, is that as they used to be called, and imagine kind of having that kind of foresight as to kind of see kind of how beneficial that kind of asset is within an urban environment. You know, I also often give the example of of the Oyster card as a kind of as a really good example of a, you know, other other technology that has sort of transformed a city. But I tend to focus on the kind of the move after the Oyster card, which was to allow me to use any of my debit cards to be able to manage that transaction. And for me, that then, it just made that technology kind of disappear, which which, you know, which for me, is a really kind of interesting, interesting kind of feature of it. And time we, you know, we often think of as the really clever stuff, you know, not being that smart, you know that the, the one sensor strain that I use pretty much every day is just weather data, it's just the weather forecast, you know, I ride a bike, so therefore, it's handy to know if it's going to be raining or not. I think for me, it is that kind of movement from, you know,

I think the most interesting technology is the stuff that we forget is actually technology, because we just use it and kind of accept it. And it basically improved our lot around the city. To your original question, Sarah? Yes, I think London is a smart city, I think it has been since 1637.

Kulveer Ranger  8:01  
It became very clear to me actually, at City Hall, because I had, as you can imagine a number of companies beating down my door with their latest technology. And invariably, they'd come very excited with what they could do. But I would ask, how does this help me in terms of some of the policy problems and the people problems and the challenges we have in and around city, but they go 'my books can do this amazing thing'. And it was that gap between what the technology does and the outcomes that we're trying to achieve. And I think that's where a number of us and where I've gone back into industry to help. Now I work for large technology business with Atos. But there are many large technology businesses. And it's the gap between the technology they're developing, and the actual outcomes that we need to see and improve and the challenges we need to make that we're trying to bridge because that's where society then benefits. It is not from pure technologies, it's ++9from the outcomes.

Sarah Wise  9:00  
I think on the question of bringing together how the sort of policy comes from the use of data. There's a really interesting case study within London that I almost think, begins quite a lot of research, which is during the 1850s, there is this very famous cholera outbreak where the equally famous Jon Snow, the researcher identified what the transmission mechanism of cholera was, he very famously removed a pump handle from the Broad Street pump. And this sort of proved his theory that cholera was, in fact, waterborne. That was all a theory which came from his extensive research within London, where the newspapers had been publishing the locations of cholera deaths. So you have this, this traditional example of public almost sort of crowdsource data from a newspaper supporting a policy intervention in a context within London, you know, in 1853, in a way that I think, I think in a lot of cases, people probably wouldn't So Oh, well, that's a clear example of, you know, sort of smart city. But on the other hand, you have the public sharing of data, and the application of that data to a local policy question and a really interesting way. So.

Kulveer Ranger  10:12  
So on that point, you could like maybe give a slightly more recent example, but maybe maybe not as important from a public health perspective, but almost because actually cycle hire scheme, which I was tasked to deliver, for the Mayor, and you know, where lots went on in terms of how we delivered and procured and developed that scheme for London. But fundamentally, when delivering, we wanted to make sure that there was enough adoption of the scheme at the start now, you know, you're delivering a scheme at the start, it was only actually 5000 bikes in the first wave, you know, middle of 2010, we're talking about here. But how did you have the data to know exactly where the docking station should go, the kinds of trips and routes that people are going to take, we could best guesstimate from looking at existing cycling, but we also knew that was gonna be a very different cohort of people, that would be using a occasional bike to take a short trip, they weren't going to be the traditional cyclists who are sort of committed and using it maybe daily or more often. So we have very little to go on. And one of the things we did do was we didn't launch with all the docking stations in place, we left enough stability, but based around also understanding that if you overlap the cohort, people who were generally going to be first adopters to try the bicycle, the cycle hire scheme, then they would probably be the kind of people who might have a smartphone and might even then download an app. If you could get that kind of information out there, you could probably get key data back from them, of how they were using it in the very first wave of launch, which is what we didn't do. We released data, early pre launch of where docking stations where we let developers build apps. And we then harvested that information to actually build the scheme out as it evolved, you know, designing in real time, how the scheme should be developed.

Sarah Wise  12:14  
Can I ask you kulveer to sort of go on in that in that same sort of vein and talk about your experience with which smart technologies have worked for London. And maybe in contrast, where are some gaps that you still see that that need to be developed, in your opinion,

Kulveer Ranger  12:29  
in any major city transport plays a huge part. And therefore the integration of a platform like or is there and then that evolving into other smart devices has been an integral integral to the success of how the city develops, because it just opens up. So everything's interconnected, multimodal transport, and then the rise of smartphones and the capabilities that they have. But I think where we're heading, that there's two fundamental points I'd probably want to make about this as for the city, and probably broader. One is that as individuals, we very much have now created what I call our own personal digital ecosystems. And very quickly, that concept's about having three things. One is connectivity, we all pay for a certain amount of connectivity, whereas 5g, Wi Fi, whatever it may be, we all have our devices, our laptops, our smart phones, I pads, whatever it may be. So we've got connectivity, we've got devices. And then we've got our platforms. And those platforms are the social platforms that we're all using, you know, whether it's Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, etc, Facebook even. And you put these things together, and you've got your own ecosystem that you can then leverage in any way that you want to, but actually, at the moment, it feels it's used against us, you know, people aren't marketing selling, using our platform to get to us. And I think there's a bit of a, how do we enable that us as individuals to get better control of that digital ecosystem that we actually have created for ourselves? And what I think from a city perspective we need to do is ensure that people can locate where they are augments around a localised experience about the city. So that localised feeling of London, the borrower's engaging with citizens using the platforms that they have local democracy, local services, local logistics, and that's probably the second point I want to make. Because the biggest issue that's dramatically changing, and obviously, we can't ignore it, we haven't said it so far, but COVID has totally turbocharged a number of these trends has been about how we are now using logistics. And that's, you know, whether it's the delivery of food, or whether it's our shopping or whatever it may be. And we need to now look at how can we make that an even more efficient model for us as individuals because I think that the acceleration we've seen over the last year have just deliveries has put a different kind of burden on vehicle use and how the city works.

Sarah Wise  15:09  
Duncan, can I ask, you're sort of within our department, the king of the Internet of Things. Do you do you see a very clear way that the Internet of Things could contribute to that kind of sort of localization, that kind of participation that I think COVID is referring to?

Duncan Wilson  15:27  
Yeah. I mean, I, you know, I tend to always tell our students, when we're sort of teaching about these things, you know, it's the Internet of Things, it's just, it's just a technology, it's just a tool that we can use to achieve some goal. And it's the achieving the goal. That's the important thing. And I think that this has been driven by reducing cost in computation. Just generally, you know, we now have a different levels of connectivity available to us, which means if you put those two things together, it kind of means that we're creating this, this these new data sources, that new data in ways that we couldn't before. And this does give us some fantastic opportunities to be able to really help us to understand how we are using the built environment, and the impact that we're having on on that environment as well, maybe the natural side. But it also helps us to kind of build up the evidence as well, I think that that, you know, that That to me is kind of one of the key things that we could be doing more of So, for example, you know, over the Olympic Park, we've been, we've been monitoring bat populations, since about 2017, for the first sensors out. And the reason the reason for counting bats in the park, we have 15, sensors dispersed around. And that and they are literally listening in to bat to bat conversation. So we call it we call it the Shazam for bats. And recounts it, you know, and so for example, in the peak of the summer, we'll count maybe 20,000 bat conversations over the course of an evening. And but the reason why it's really important or or useful is because, you know, within that part of the city with the there's a whole bunch of regulations around the kind of supportive biodiversity in these these places. So if it's from a development perspective, and species, like bats are really good kind of proxy indicator species for there being good biodiversity, because if you have bats, their bats are feeding on the intersection means the insects have their pig, etc. So it's actually an exact an example of where the local community is able to, you know, understand, you know, how that population is working, how that environment is performing, but also allows them to take some, some kind of control over that local space as well.

Sarah Wise  17:46  
But one of the really interesting things that's happened is that as open data has grown communities have sort of taken more ownership over their local data, I think that they feel more involved in local decisions. For example, one of my evacuation models, we were simulating people evacuating to various shelters during a storm, they had never individually as a group mapped where people would be coming from and in terms of sort of seeing the simulation of their local area, with with local data that had come from, you know, people who had mapped within their community, they had a better understanding of how their evacuation plans and their local preparations melded with other people around them. And so this particular community group we met with ended up meeting with a lot of other local community groups. So the whole region was sort of regionally better integrated. And that was possible because of the data which had been created locally. And by tools, which allowed people who weren't necessarily specialists who weren't necessarily invested in that data originally, in being able to use and integrate that data and that information into their decisions and their planet.

Kulveer Ranger  19:05  
It's just very, you make fantastic points where it comes back to your question around, you know, is London a smart city? Well, actually, you're only as smart as the decisions that are being made. And those decisions whether based on data or not, and in this case, we get more data. But I think more as if London is becoming more digital, then it's about a digital society that we're really talking about. And the three elements around that, that that really concerned me in terms of what we need to address for people with people are, firstly, the fundamental question of security. Because you know that that's a key element in all of what we're talking about. And sometimes it's kind of left off the table as a sort of vanilla conversation, or of course, there'll be security, but, you know, there's a huge challenge of ensuring that things services, people's information, data is kept secure. And I think that's a fundamental element that needs to be front and centre, and whatever we talk about, the second has to be accessibility. And if it's something that's for broader society, then it must be able to be accessible by society. And I think that's something that all businesses, industries, public organisations, when working with technology must keep at the forefront of thinking, the accessibility point, this is a public service, or it's a public activity, and therefore the public must find accessibility to all of these solutions. And then the final thing is democratic decision making based on data. Now, we've been through a period of time where people have been talking about we will be guided by the experts and the data. But I still meant that that that data, and that advice does need to be interpreted to get a decision, that is a democratic decision and a decision that is I you know, hopefully the best for all.

Duncan Wilson  20:55  
I love your your triple over the secure, accessible. And then democratic decision making. I think I would also put the emphasis on that on that last bit, it's the thing, it's actually making decisions out of, out of these activities, it's doing something with with that information. I think this is where a bit of the backlash against the, you know, the constant piloting of things, when you when you pilot things you can you can kind of avoid having to make the decisions, or you can avoid having to then actually implement this all the change for real.

Sarah Wise  21:28  
So Kulveer, can I ask you, in this context to talk about - are there any other London public services that you think are good targets to make smarter, as it were, although I think we're not using that word anymore.

Kulveer Ranger  21:42  
No, you're right. You can't help but say, but I think we, you know, where's technology leading us next. And if I'm absolutely honest with you, Sarah, it's probably not just that pure lens of public services. I think, where we're heading is to this hybrid world of, you know, integration of innovation from private sector and public sector to create the right services that people want. What do I mean by that, again, I'll come back to my favourite topic of transport and technology, you know, the rise of apps, Uber, Lyft, whatever we want to call it, the aggregation of services, these things are coming together. But people want this to be a sort of integrated approach to transport need, some of that might be a public transport basis, some might be a dollop of those kinds of services, some might be a cycle hire element to it, you start integrating and aggregating. And I think that's where the next great step is around, you know, mobility, the personal mobility mix. But I would say the second thing is something I've already mentioned earlier, but really is the localness, and community is going to become episode important for us. And I see that dynamic, we see it shifting because of the way people's work life has shifted through the pandemic. And I think they'll be definitely at least a hangover from that positive hangover, in how we operate in the places we live.

Sarah Wise  23:08  
I think that the kinds of services that you're also talking about Kulveer, in terms of the very local services and the sorts of new processes that we're seeing, especially in the the consequences of the pandemic, I think that there is a growing awareness at a community level for the need for these kinds of new services, new information, which can be responsive, which captures things like, you know, as you say, how accessible different resources are, is it something where wheelchair users can conveniently move around? I think that there's more interest in that. And I think that we've seen more community engagement with that. Um, but then again, one of the questions people have asked is that while you know, while in this conversation, we've been focusing very much on on how this data can be made available to people how these tools can be made available to people, as we have sort of an increasing range of high tech startups, which are trying to sort of gain a foothold, perhaps even a controlling foothold in some of these systems. To what degree do we think that sort of low tech things like a sort of unconnected community store or the farmers market, which isn't on any kind of local map? To what extent are those things going to survive?

Duncan Wilson  24:38  
We will always have unconnected things. Most of the things in my house are unconnected, mostly around my desk at the moment. Maybe I'll put the emphasis on on not unconnected, but but maybe kind of less connected or slower. What when I was kind of listening to you talking, and I was thinking about the kind of the difference between the high tech and the low tech.. You know, I started thinking about the, the shiny tech, and the subtlety and the subtle tech. And I think, I think I'm I mean, I'm a technologist. So I, you know, I can't say there's a world with no technology. But I think that I'm, you know, I'm really kind of interested in the things that, that helps us to do things a bit more subtly, I've got an allotment that I go to, and it's, there's a fantastic community of people out there that they're kind of sharing tips and stuff. And, and most of that is all, verbal, it's all community based. And that's kind of to me is, is really powerful. You know, I kind of went into this about five years ago thinking that I was going to document everything and have spreadsheets for stuff and but it's not you just you just kind of live in experiences. But the one bit of technology that the allotment has ended up using is, is the humble weather station. And we've got got a weather station in the middle of the allotment that I've got connected to a web page. And I knew that I was using it. But what really surprised me was that other people on the allotment, were coming up to me and saying, Oh, thanks for the the weather station website, we've been you know, we use it daily. Yeah. And I thought they were just being nice to me. But actually, no, they actually using it. And it's and in what they use it for is to know when it's been raining in the allotment, because they have a weather forecast for London. But London is quite big. And so it can rain in London, but not rain in the allotment is kind of what I'm saying. And then there's this bunch of other projects that we've been doing. So it's like colleagues work on a project with Hampstead Heath. There's a project called talking trees, I should have my name wrong. But it was essentially kind of creating some interactive installations that allowed people to hear and listen to stories about the trees in Hampstead Heath. And because there's a whole bunch of knowledge from the arborist there that is, that is again being handed down from sort of person to person. But some of that has been documented. And so we're kind of capturing some of these narratives around the trees and the role that they play within that environment. And but we're kind of, you know, we're using the technology to kind of create histories. I think one of my favourite projects that I've worked on over this past decade was actually one with a bunch of schools around around the UK. And this was the core of the project was to look at how technology could be used to make the whole of the school, the science laboratory, rather than just the science lab rooms. And we got the and the school kids were basically designing these interactions and interventions that have been made in the schools. So they count those ideas. And there's there's one group that came with this idea of having this what they call a 60 year clock. And it was, it was a measuring device that was measuring in a timescale of 60 years. And so there was much slower sort of data capture. So what they were doing was recording things like the day of the year that the blossom tree blossomed outside reception. And so they were capturing one data point a year. And I just kind of loved that idea of that kind of slow capture of data as well. So it's not all about this, you know, high velocity, big data world that we're from talk about, I think to frame this kind of smart cities discourse in terms of kind of efficiency and security, which is often kind of where that the tech companies come from. I think while it does generate useful outcomes, I think it misses the many more creative opportunities, which I think are much more interesting for us.

Sarah Wise  28:35  
I quite agree and I'm delighted that consensus in this call seems to be that a community oriented Smart City is is the way of the future. Thanks, you guys so much for being a part of this conversation. Thank you so much for your interesting answers. You've been listening to Future Cities brought to you by UCL. If you want to hear more about this topic, please also check out Building Better - The Bartlett podcast wherever you download your podcasts. This podcast is an Auntnell production of the producer and editor of this episode with delightful Shivani Dave.

Transcript by otter.ai