As I discussed in my previous post, presentations at the expo in Kyoto conveyed much optimism about smart cities technologies. Almost all initiatives exhibited showed positive results. City officials illustrated various transport, energy, water usage etc. related initiatives, for which they reported rapid increase in usage levels, in downloads of applications, and in sign-ups to services. The fine print in these cases, however, is that the overall share of users tends to remain low. In a typical case, a technology company would describe their many installations where some clever piece of technology had been put in place in a utility service to improve energy and water efficiency through better measurement accuracy. The potential for improvement in efficiencies is significant, yet at this point little evidence was given to substantiate the claims of concrete benefit. Not even for the utility company, not to mention the customer. Even if in some individual cases a benefit had been observed, a larger scale improvement was not clear, as the implementations tend to be small scale. This was one of the problems that I observed in my earlier research on mobile health. Nevertheless, the overall message was that smart cities implementations have so far been successful in making savings and attracting citizens to the use of new technologies.
In conferences or exhibitions like this, as in academic writing as well, it is mostly the successful projects that are described or exhibited. From my perspective, it is the different challenges that are particularly interesting, as I happen to think we can learn much more from the obstacles. It has become somewhat popular to talk about counterfactuals in this connection, even if it is not actually the same thing [there are various definitions, but one from psychology, according to wikipedia, is about speculation of what might have happened if something that did not occur had in fact occurred….]. In this event, only one Korean presenter took the path less travelled, and discussed rather openly the various challenges that their projects had run against over a decade. They went through the usual things: slow uptake, technology did not work as expected, funding did not come through as promised, integration of new technology into existing systems turned out to be complicated (and this one I find particularly interesting, but more about that at another time), etc. The presenter had nevertheless not turned into a Luddite, but was still optimistic in regards smart cities futures. In the same panel, 3 other members either presented either facts of what had been started and what was expected to happen, or the great potential for new business and economic growth that smart cities technologies can bring, in joyous optimism. The contrast was rather interesting, where one could imagine this all being the same case, but 3 presenters from its beginning, and the Korean Manager after the first 10 years. A 10-year ethnographic study of smart cities projects would surely be a fascinating read….