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Software Engineers Hold the Keys to Smart Cities

Stijn Bijnens - CEO Cegeka

Cities are under pressure to redefine themselves, and to do so fast. The percentage of city dwellers is expected to rise to a stunning 60% by 2030. As a result, urban mobility - already a conundrum - will get more complex still. The reality of climate change and the need to reduce emissions will make sure of that. City officials and municipal leaders face enormous challenges that require smart solutions and swift action.

Enter the ‘Smart City’ concept, a buzzword that is bandied around freely, often without being thoroughly understood. A smart city is - or should be - a city that is able to solve its most pressing problems through smart software development. Two words are key here: ‘pressing’ and ‘software.’

‘Pressing’ because smart cities are not about gadgets. They are not vanity projects. They are about solving the pressing problems our overcrowded cities face, such as mobility, congestion and pollution. And they do so by means of ‘software’, by which I mean: cutting-edge technical solutions that make (existing) hard assets smart and connected.

In terms of mobility, we all agree that the ‘lets-build-another-lane’ mindset is no longer valid. Adding more layers of concrete, steel and hardware to our cities is often unfeasible, undesirable, unecological or all three. It is always costly. And it does not address the heart of the problem anyway.

Software does. Where more hard assets usually fail, software can succeed. Which means that, for our smart cities to turn from vision into reality, we need more than just civil or electric engineers. We need software engineers.

A whole new mindset

One way of bypassing the ‘keep building’ mindset is to repurpose legacy single-function assets into dynamic multi-purpose ones. Let’s take the example of a car park. With software, legacy parking assets can be redesigned to become mobility hubs that offer more capacity as well as more services for more users.

How so? Three elements need to be in place.

Decision makers must be able to think beyond original purpose. Take a car park that belongs to a university campus, a business park or a residential building. Its original purpose is to offer parking space to its limited set of users (staff, students, home occupants etc.). Which begs the question: why not to other car drivers? Or to TNCs such as Lyft and Uber? Or to upcoming (micro) mobility choices such as bike-sharing, step-sharing or car-sharing? Smart software can make that happen.

And it goes further than that. Car parks can also be repurposed to offer services like cleaning and servicing. Or e-commerce delivery. Or electrical charging. As the demand for electric vehicles will boom, so will the need for charging stations (and for a digital twin of the grid, to handle the demand, but that is another challenge). To put it more succinctly: the car park that is not just a car park, is the car park of the future.

The second element in the mix is a deep understanding of human behavior and a user-centric mindset. Smart mobility is all about improving the quality of life (and health) of people. In terms of mobility at large, this means allowing them to get from A to B in a way that is smooth, safe, clean, affordable, predictable and reliable, including the first and last miles.

In terms of smart parking, this means eliminating as much user friction as possible. Nobody likes to drive around in circles looking for a space to leave their vehicle, just as nobody enjoys the fuss that often comes with paying for and exiting a parking lot. Not only is this a source of frustration and a waste of time and energy, it also adds to congestion and thus pollution.

Thirdly, there will be no success without the will and ability to collaborate in novel ways. City officials, municipal leaders, local governments, infrastructure owners: they not only have to set the vision and define the strategy, they have to expand their network and work together in ways they might have never done before. They cannot go it alone.

Who needs to be in their ecosystem? Software engineers that have deep expertise in IoT and Artificial Intelligence, both crucial for cities to become smart. Engineers that have the chutzpah to do away with the plumbery that characterizes much of IoT today. Engineers that can leverage new technology, such as 5G. Engineers that have access to and can work with data in a way which is privacy compliant.

We can start today

So, where to start? A smart city, like Rome, cannot be built in a day. According to Gartner, one of the key drivers for success with smart cities is “the ability to balance priorities during the execution of projects for urban efficiency.” In other words: we can’t do everything all at once. We have to choose wisely where to start. We need to focus.

For us, at Cegeka, smart mobility is a logical first step. It addresses several needs, all of which require action sooner rather than later: urban explosion, congestion, pollution. But smart car parks are but one milestone on the road towards smart mobility. Ultimately, we should be living in a world in which selling end-to-end, clean and smooth mobility will be more relevant than selling cars.

Our collective vision of that world, and the cities in it, will be realized with the help of software engineers, or it will not be realized at all. The key to that magical city of the future is firmly in their hands. Let’s pave the road together and above all: let’s start today.

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