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3 Takeaways from #SCEWC19 Barcelona

On 19-21 November, more than 24 thousand visitors from all over the world convened in Barcelona for the ninth edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress. This year’s hot topics covered a wide range of areas, from 5G to Digital Twins, from micro-mobility to Intelligent Transport Systems, from rural-urban links to data governance and digital rights. If you couldn’t make it, here are the three main takeaways according to DUET whose team spent three full days at the event. DUET shared the exhibition space provided by the Open & Agile Smart Cities Network with a number of other EU projects, among them PoliVisu, Select4Cities and SynchroniCity.

(1) Digital Twins have greatly benefited from advances in Artificial Intelligence, Big Data analytics and the Internet of Things all of which added a new dimension to this modeling concept. However, implementing the Digital Twin technology requires a strong digital culture. And because Digital Twins are a relatively recent phenomenon, we need more case studies and best practices to promote their adoption on a wider scale.

Digital Twins provide a virtual model of a place, process, product or service, allowing users to monitor systems and head off problems before they occur. A kind of modeling exercise, Digital Twins help answer “then-what?” and “what-if?” questions by simulating the impact of change on status quo. In the context of smart cities, having a virtual replica of a place comes in handy as policy makers and planners can use the city model to better manage resources, prevent systems’ downtime, reduce carbon footprint and improve vital services, to name just a few opportunities. This makes Digital Tweens heavily dependent on data e.g. government data, in-situ data, 3D models, real-time IoT data. And that is just one challenge impeding their global adoption as cities with small budgets and nascent digital culture will simply find the whole endeavor too costly, too sophisticated. Additionally, delivering early success is crucial for Digital Twin’s long-term’s success. Potential adopters need to see the benefits sooner than later to add to the momentum and become part of the movement.

(2) Today, there is a widespread expectation that policy making should be more agile to keep pace with societal changes driven significantly by the rapid development and deployment of emerging technologies. As governments strive to keep pace with the 4th Industrial Revolution, it is important not to lose sight of simple tools to connect with citizens.

Cities are complex, multi-faceted systems that in this day and age advance very fast. Public administrations need to keep up with the current pace of innovation to ensure their policies remain fit for purpose. Technologies such as blockchain and cloud computing offer governments a means to burnish their innovation credentials and address a growing demand for more efficiency and transparency. However, while these tools are important, they are not enough. Policy makers should also invest in public facing technologies that are simple enough for an average citizen with basic ICT skills to use/understand. Examples that fall under this category include various GovTech solutions that range from Open Data platforms to web-based traffic visualisations.

(3) While ongoing innovations in Big Data, IoT, AI, cloud and edge computing certainly make cities smarter, the question remains whether they have become more inclusive. In reality, the growing dependency on digital devices and real-time communications can exacerbate inequalities between the haves (people with skills, devices and access to internet) and the have-nots. The digital ecosystem also entails new risks arising from data breaches, cyber-attacks and service disruption. Thus there is an urgent need for decision makers in the public, private and third sectors to mobilise societal resources to manage the transition to a digital ecosystem, one that is safe, inclusive and sustainable.

The benefits of ICT innovations are clear: greater efficiency, increased productivity, more agile economy. Mixed with these benefits, however, is also a widespread fear that incessant digitization will exacerbate the digital divide between digital natives and digital newbies. With over 40% of the world’s population without internet access, services which are primarily offered online (‘digital first’ approach), could further isolate those without access and/or appropriate skills, thus increasing the risk for vulnerable groups to fall further behind our rapidly progressing digital society. Another challenge related to increasing digitization concerns cyber security. The ubiquity of cloud computing and a general trend towards integration means that more systems are now online than ever before, which makes them vulnerable to sophisticated cyber-attacks. If these challenges are not duly addressed, the kind of future we were promised might not be so bright after all, with many more losers than winners.

To conclude, it’s hard to find an area where the Fourth Industrial Revolution hasn’t left its mark. From mobility to energy and environment, everything these days is affected by changes in data and ICTs that continue their relentless pace year after year. Because of that, governments increasingly rely on evidence-based knowledge and advanced data driven tools to leverage new technologies and make informed policy decisions. DUET is pleased that its Digital Twins will go some way to addressing this need. The project starts in December 2019 and we’ll be share more exciting news from our pilot cities regularly after that. Watch this space.

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