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The smart city as a response to the growing urban population

Didier Ongena, Director Microsoft Belgium & Luxembourg
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Didier Ongena

More than fifteen leading figures have been invited to publish a Carte Blanche on the BRIC website between January 2018 and June 2019: an opportunity for each of them to share their vision for the Brussels-Capital Region of tomorrow and express their wishes in terms of regional ICT.

By 2050, an estimated 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. The pressure to make our cities more efficient, safer and more environmentally aware is therefore increasing. Through new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) or the Internet of Things (IoT), we can make life in cities more pleasant and cope with the growing population. From improved mobility to energy saving and urban planning: the future lies with the smart city.

Become a fan of your city

In the future, urban life will be completely different. Your smartphone and diary will thus be able to connect to the enormous amount of information available. With all that information, a digital assistant like Cortana can give you suggestions to plan your day and route as efficiently as possible, for example. Do you have to do your shopping in the centre? AI analyses the data on parking availability and advises you to stay at home for a while until parking spaces are available or recommends an alternative means of transport. The possibilities are endless. And the ultimate goal? To make city life as pleasant, efficient and safe as possible.

A smart city is built on a solid digital base

An app or a chatbot don’t yet make a city smart. What characterises a real smart city is that it develops a digital foundation to which they can link projects with new technologies. Cities, including Brussels, that want to be smart, are therefore best looking beyond individual projects. Ideally, such a city should start a real digital transformation, as in the commercial sector.

For Microsoft, such a foundation consists of four blocks, each of which plays its own role in making the city smart. The first is an urban variant of CRM, or citizen relationship management, in which cities and municipalities can gather information about their inhabitants or visitors in order to better understand their needs. Secondly, a digital service is needed, such as an e-counter or chatbots that provide better contact with residents and allow city employees to focus on more complex issues. The third block, a modern ERP package, ensures that the various city services can work together more efficiently. From the swimming pool to the town hall, all metropolitan bodies must be able to digitise their work processes so that information about orders and opening hours, for example, can be incorporated into the foundation. Finally, it is important that cities modernise their infrastructure with sensors and cameras in order to obtain information about what is happening in the city.

Privacy and cybersecurity as a priority

The absolute priority for anyone who uses large amounts of data, whether companies or cities, is undoubtedly privacy and security. Focus not only on compliance with regulations concerning the collection, storage and analysis of data, but also on transparent communication. Residents and visitors must be sure that their privacy is safeguarded. Anyone who entrusts his or her data to the smart city must also have the guarantee that they are protected against hackers as effectively as possible. The city can safely outsource something like this to a partner with knowledge of the facts.

A smart city is a self-learning city

Once that digital foundation is in place, a smart city can build new applications by using the data collected thanks to those four blocks. This can not be done manually, so AI will come in handy in putting that information to good use. Moreover, our society is changing all the time: one day mobility is the priority, the next year it may be safety. Algorithms have to adapt continuously, so self-learning artificial intelligence is of great importance. Actually, as a city, you should not strive for a smart city, but for a smart service for everyone.

Smart cities as a response to today’s challenges

Microsoft founder Bill Gates also believes that smart cities help us tackle current and future challenges. Through his investment fund Belmont Partners, he is working on the ambitious Belmont project. With a city designed from scratch as a smart city, the project aims to show how technology can overcome the challenges of urban life.

In our country, and therefore also in our own capital, the issue of mobility, for example, is a hard nut to crack. We are already seeing smart city projects that are trying to solve this. For example, one of our partners, Be-Mobile, is working on 'Slim in Antwerpen'. Several sensors, spread over the whole of Antwerp, map the traffic in the city. You can see the congestion on the roads, where there are taxis, bus and tram stops, or bike-sharing stations. This allows you to map out the ideal route through the city for any time of day. This seems to me to be an initiative that could also have a positive impact on mobility in Brussels. Not only for those who live here, but also for those who come to work or visit.

There are many other projects that can add value to Brussels and other cities. As with energy saving, for example. The Luxembourg town of Esch-sur-Alzette built an app that collects data from various sensors and meters via Microsoft Azure, then analyses and maps the use of gas and water and heat levels within the town. Thanks to the app, the town is now saving 80% on energy and significantly reducing CO2 emissions.
We can also boost security in our capital with smart technology, for example with the social intelligence of Public Sonar, another Microsoft partner. Their artificial intelligence analyses social media to gain an insight into what is going on in the city. It can help the police analyse the level of tension in different neighbourhoods and detect possible crisis situations more quickly. The possibilities are endless, but they always come down to the same thing: making life in our cities more pleasant, more efficient and safer.

Brussels has a lot of potential as a smart city

To make a city really smart, the four building blocks are therefore crucial. Once a city has that digital foundation, they can make urban life a lot more pleasant through various projects such as chatbots or drones. The larger the city, the greater the challenges with which they are confronted. But this also means that there is a great deal of potential to respond to this with technology, certainly in a city like Brussels. I am therefore very much looking forward to how they are preparing themselves for the future of urban life with technology. In my opinion, the city can become an example to others.

More information about urban digital transformation: