Gilles Betis, Q&A on IEEE Smart Cities Initiative

Gilles Betis chairs the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative and serves as action line leader of Urban Life and Mobility program at EIT Digital in Paris, which brings together researchers and business leaders to apply technology to solve urban challenges. Betis and his Smart Cities steering committee are selecting cities around the world for “smartification.”


Question: What’s new in the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative?

Betis: In October we held the first annual IEEE International Smart Cities Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, which was the first of five core cities in this initiative. We have just announced that Kansas City, Missouri in United States, and Casablanca in Morocco, will be the fourth and fifth IEEE Core Smart Cities. The two cities join Guadalajara, Mexico; Trento, Italy; and Wuxi, China, our first three core cities. We have set upcoming, kickoff meetings for Casablanca, Jan. 21-22, and for Kansas City, Feb. 8-9.

Aristotele Sandoval, Governor of Jalisco

Aristóteles Sandoval, Governor of Jalisco, speaks at the 2015 IEEE First International Smart Cities Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Question: What is the thinking behind the selection of Kansas City and Casablanca?

Betis: We chose these two cities from 16 high-quality applicants for several reasons. They established a clear collaboration between their city government, the IEEE local section, local industries and local universities. We need to see consensus and collaboration in support of the IEEE Smart Cities mission. We need to see that the local IEEE section can manage this initiative locally, because we need a committed IEEE team of volunteers to drive local activities and to liaise with the Smart Cities steering committee. The same applies to local universities and local industries. Do they all have the resources they need, the expertise they need to make progress on their plans and share the knowledge gained with other cities in the initiative?

Acceptance into the initiative requires an articulate, pragmatic plan for how the city can become smarter in how it is run, with the goal of improving its citizens’ quality of life. We expect this to be accomplished, in part, by improving infrastructure and access to various civic services.

The selection process also took into account geographic diversity. Kansas City is the first core city named for North America, where urban infrastructure needs rejuvenating. By choosing Casablanca, we have a city on the African continent, where cities are growing at a high rate. In the latter case, streams of rural residents are creating pockets of poverty in many cities of this continent. How can we transform these cities for the 21st century? How can we integrate new arrivals, improve the quality of life and create prosperity? We must do this with constrained budgets, particularly in the developing countries, creating a new type of smart city -- the frugal city. These are not low-cost smart cities, but cities where investment is tailored to develop high quality, targeted, innovative services, enabling continued benefits from legacy infrastructure and traditional usages. In that case citizen empowerment become crucial, and a careful and holistic estimate of return on investment is critical to obtain maximum leverage effect.

Question: What are the first steps these two cities must take?

Betis: The first step for the two new cities is to present their working plan for the next two years at the kickoff meetings I mentioned. They will create multidisciplinary working groups with people from different stakeholder groups. They must define their knowledge-creation objectives and their plans for dissemination of the resulting knowledge.

Question: Apart from improving their own cities, what are Kansas City, Casablanca and the other three core cities expected to contribute to the overall Smart Cities Initiative?

Betis: This is a key point. We observe that people typically work together on two dimensions: on the basis of cultural and geographic proximity and/or because they share the same problems. Thus we arrived at the notion of core cities managing affiliated cities within their cultural and geographic proximity and, during regular events, workshops or conferences, they will share the best practices that affect other cities worldwide that have encountered similar challenges.

Another goal we assigned to core cities this year is to determine how they will work with what we call “affiliated” cities. How will Kansas City, for instance, play the role of lighthouse for the IEEE Smart City Initiative in North America? How will Kansas City work with nearby, affiliated cities, share knowledge with them and attract them to the initiative? The same holds true for Casablanca for North Africa, Guadalajara for Latin America, Trento, Italy, for Europe and Wuxi for China.

Meeting with the representatives from all of the IEEE Smart Cities

Meeting with the representatives from all of the IEEE Smart Cities.

Question: Kansas City’s application states that it seeks “technology-driven efficiencies while respecting the richness, diversity and messiness of city life.” That sounds like a realistic perspective that technology must serve people. Do you agree?

Betis: Yes. That statement captures the applicant’s understanding that the people and their well-being come first, and technology should support that well-being. Cities are dynamic, sometimes chaotic environments that will never yield entirely to completely orderly processes run by technology. Cities, at their best, should be vibrant expressions of the local people’s zest for life. That’s what makes them exciting to live in.

Question: What does each of these cities bring to the table and what are their specific challenges?

Betis: In terms of challenges, both cities are experiencing rapid growth and they want to intelligently shape that growth to preserve and enhance the quality of life for their citizens. Both possess dozens if not hundreds of distinct neighborhoods with different ethnic and historical roots. Beyond those similar characteristics and challenges, the two cities are disparate culturally, geographically and technologically. Kansas City, with just under a half-million people, is a Missouri River port in the American Midwest that was founded in the mid-19th century. Today it has a strong relationship with a major vendor of networking equipment, so they have a communication infrastructure they can build on. Casablanca is also a port, on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, is one of Africa’s largest and demographically diverse cities, with three to four million people. It does not have the networking technology foundation of Kansas City. Politically, both must draw their diverse communities into the process of determining the technologies that can address their challenges. And the chosen technologies, where useful, will have to be pragmatic and affordable and their deployments will need to be phased in, in various parts of the city, with the goal of first improving daily life.

Question: What metrics will be used to determine progress toward the core cities goals?

Betis: We will use sensor-generated data as well as sociological measures, which depend on technology and social science. But it’s important to keep in mind that metrics are tools, not cardinal objectives. When we speak of key performance indicators (KPIs), for instance, we must remember that there is a cardinal objective behind the KPI – fundamentally, the citizenry’s quality of life – and the KPI is just a tool to measure progress.

And metrics have limits. It is more difficult to measure human perceptions and feelings. We can measure crime, but do citizens feel safe? Sensor-driven data and sociological measures are very useful but we must acknowledge that some aspects of a smart city will be difficult to assess. Being a smart city is a process, not a definitive achievement.

Question: Every city has political and cultural legacies that could impede progress toward becoming a smart city. How does the Initiative deal with entrenched interests?

Betis: One major criterion for acceptance as a core city is strong, multi-stakeholder support for the IEEE Smart City Initiative and its processes. If we want to pave the way to a future that includes sustainable cities with a high quality of life, we must start with the best of the best in class. So we must see motivation and commitment from a diverse and inclusive set of stakeholders in an applicant city, including municipal government, industry, universities, citizens groups and the local IEEE chapter. We make our selection of core cities based on that multi-stakeholder foundation and their potential for meeting the gamut of urban challenges.