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“The primary challenge to building a smart city has nothing to do with pouring concrete and erecting steel beams. It’s knowing better the city’s flows to optimize the city for its inhabitants. It’s turning all of the data that comes streaming in from myriad sources into actionable information,” says Laetitia Gazel Anthoine, founder and CEO of Connecthings, a U.S.-European-based technology and IoT enabling company.

It’s not as easy as it seems however, the city is dynamic and chaotic like a living organism made up of millions of independent parts. We cannot depend on federal and municipal governments to understand the nuances of city life for its wide variety of inhabitants. Despite all the data, no one group can consider needs and desires of every urban demographic, nor should they be expected to.

Such top-down systems simply don’t perform for broad technology rollouts as we have seen before. Only by accessing the power of the people can a universal technology serve its users. Consider the internet, originally conceived as a single interface academic collaboration tool, but only when anyone could create a website did the internet become a platform for the chaotic beautiful masterpiece we know today.

The smartphone is another example, it went beyond the standard mobile telephone to offer a platform upon which people could create their own solutions. At the birth of the smartphone few would have imagined Uber style taxi services or Shazam mobile music identification ability. The platform itself inspired the smartphone apps and brought about these solutions, just as it will be the smart city platform that fosters new opportunities for urban improvement.

The smartphone is of course part of the smart city, and both are part of the internet in its widest sense. The smartphone hosts the interface for smart city apps like wayfinding, ride sharing, and social messaging. However, to truly be part of the smart city, these apps need to engage with the city as a platform to a much greater extent. Gazel Anthoine describes two scenarios in an article for IoT Agenda, the current situation and what might be possible:

Apps typically know about their users in their service, but not about their environment and the city events. Let’s say you’re heading to your office and you have several transportation options. You may use one app to share a ride, another to check the bus arrival times or get a taxi, and yet another to alert your friends when and where to meet. Each step requires you to initiate an action. That process could be so much more efficient if at each step it is the city that provide the data to the app so it can trigger an action for you based on your behavior and your intents in the city.

Now imagine the same scenario, but with the key difference that the city detects that you are at transportation stops and shares it with your services. Your devices and daily apps can take the initiative to provide you with transportation options instead of waiting passively for your instructions. Before entering the subway, your smartphone app informs you about traffic delay and the taxi app wakes up and notifies about carpooling options in two minutes. Before taking your cab, you receive real-time notifications from businesses around you for tonight’s events and promos.

As Gazel Anthoine admits, “that scenario just scratches the surface of how a smart city can provide a significant economic boost to the business sector and improve overall quality of life for residents and visitors.” For this to happen however, the city must create an open platform, accessible to a wide variety of app developers and urban entrepreneurs. With certain security assurances, making the system as open as possible would invite the greatest levels of innovation through the broadest contributions.

More effective integration between apps and the city can also bring about better solutions. When an incident occurs in the city, schools, businesses and people in the area can be alerted but also those whose wayfinding, ride-sharing or calendar apps puts them there later. Rerouting can incorporate emergency information, your smart group meeting app might even find you the most convenient alternative location considering the disruption.

For the city, it all comes down to providing app developers everything they need to thrive; namely data and freedom. “App developers can turn this data into better knowledge of the intents of their users in the city and deliver a better service when and where it is the most pertinent,” says Gazel Anthoine. Then just like the internet and our dumb cities, we can turn our smart cities into chaotic beautiful masterpieces too.

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