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frog: Cisco Says Cities Will Be 'Smarter' Than Us

Mindsharing chats with Wim Elfrink, Chief Globalisation Officer of the tech giant about how urban centers can leverage their populations data to...

Reena Jana, Frog
Reena Jana, Frog on September 28, 2012. @frogdesign

Reena Jana of frog shares with PSFK a recent conversation she had with one of the top minds at the multi-national tech company Cisco Systems.

Speaking one-on-one with Wim Elfrink, the first Chief Globalisation Officer to be appointed at software giant Cisco, is always a delight. I must confess that I’ve only had conversations with him via Cisco’s high-end telepresence system at the corporation’s One Penn Plaza offices in Manhattan, when it’s been morning in New York and evening in Bangalore, where Elfrink often works. As he said the last time we spoke, “sometimes it’s hard to remember if I meet people in person or on telepresence,” and this is true about our own meetings. Our chats have been so vibrant, so warm, and so engaging that we may as well have been talking at a dinner party. This is testament to Cisco’s telepresence equipment, of course, but also more exemplary of Elfrink’s dynamic mind and lively, affable personality. It shines through, no matter what the forum.

Recently, we talked about the future of cities: how they can best leverage exciting new technology possibilities in terms of becoming “smarter,” via connecting people more quickly online or via mobile devices, and processing real-time data from sensors and other equipment. In other words, we explored how urban communities can better use social networking, sensors, Big Data, and sophisticated information technology infrastructures to evolve and prosper. Here’s our edited conversation.

Why are cities such a focal point for anyone interested in inspired innovation today?

Cities have always attracted people by offering three things: security, prosperity, and quality of life. Because of those three things, innovation takes place in cities. There has long been a misconception that cities aren’t safe, that they are filled with poor people, that it is hard to live in cities.

But today, security is not about brick and mortar safety, it is not about walls. Surveillance has changed that.

Cities offer more opportunities for people to improve their lives than in smaller towns, so even if they attract people who are challenged by a lack of resources, they have better chances of becoming more prosperous.

Telepresence will also help the poor have access to cities, perhaps bring them the education, work, and even healthcare possibilities that they didn’t have before, and in a way, make them part of cities.

Also, we must remember that great cities have souls. Think of what they are known for: Paris, for art. New Orleans, for music. San Francisco, for high tech. What is so promising about social networking is that in the future, we’ll be able to connect more people with each other around these aspects of cities while we are in them—or away from them.

Finally, we should consider that the future of competition is between cities, whereas it used to be between nations. Many people today identify themselves as what city they are from, versus what country. If cities do not work to become smarter, in all aspects of the word, they will lose the competition for visitors, industries, and revenues.

I know Cisco has been working on what is a start-up city, a city made from scratch, currently being built in Songdo, South Korea. But sometimes people are skeptical about new cities. They wonder, will they lack personality, will they be built so quickly as to be unsafe? So–what are the advantages of building a city from scratch?

In Korea, Cisco is the master ICT (information and communication technology) planner for this new city, which is being built by Stan Gale near the site where General MacArthur landed. The entire new city is designed from a sustainability point of view. There’s a waste management system underground. There is a central park that is walkable from all areas. The design of this city reflects the idea that all vital parts should be reachable via foot in 10-15 minutes. There is passive water, electricity, gas. And ICT is, we believe, the 4th utility.

The advantage of such an innovation and design project is to create an entire infrastructure that works together very well. It has a destiny and a purpose.

So what about older cities: New York, London, Delhi? How can they benefit from the new smart-city technologies out there?

Older cities are reinventing themselves. They will succeed when they find a newdestiny and purpose. There are two factors to keep in mind: We’re in a service economy, and sustainability is driving the agenda.

Think about some European cities and how they have reinvented themselves: Barcelona and Amsterdam, for instance, have always been very charming. And today, both of those old cities attract artists and creative companies. Barcelona took old centers where manufacturing once took place, and after 1992, they began to transform these old sections into clusters of art-centered neighborhoods. The revitalization of older cities comes in clusters. It brings together people with common interests.

Also, cities should consider that there are new patterns of work practiced around the globe, and many workers are virtualized. The effect of this virtualization is that people are attracted to more iconic centers. It’s the opposite of what was predicted. They work perhaps in the outskirts, but still live close enough to go into the city for food, sports, music.

Yes, many cities are finding new ways to revive their economies, but many large cities have urgent urban problems, from poverty to crime. How should these communities tackle them?

They should begin by asking what is the most imminent need. It’s very specific to each city. In India, the need in many big metropolitan areas is to improve slums, to offer more access to electricity and clean water. In Detroit, it’s to spark innovation, to get investors to bring businesses back to the area. It’s possible to revive a city relatively quickly if there is a focused goal. Think of how New York City turned itself around by focusing on its need for security twenty years ago, and then again ten years ago.

But there must be some shared challenges that all cities can tackle immediately and efficiently.

Yes. Energy management is one of them. Big buildings are so inefficient. The statistics are striking: 75% of the world’s energy is used in cities. Besides energy conservation, water conservation is another area that could be improved. Singapore has reached water neutrality. They have a saying, “from toilet to tap”—I’m not sure it’s great for marketing, but the initiative proves that even a large city can remake itself by focusing on an urgent environmental need.

Cities can do a lot to alleviate traffic problems. For instance, in the U.S., a big irritation is going to visit the DMV. Why not set up the process to renew drivers’ licenses so that it happens virtually? In Paris, the average citizen spends four years of her life looking for parking. If there were parking reservations online or other such programs, it would have an enormous effect on traffic and pollution. Not to mention quality of life.

So how can cities actually begin to address these problems?

One way is to create an integrated operation system. All utilities could come together. I have to say that this is not just an ICT issue. Another 50 million devices will be connected to the Internet in the next decade, and we will be able to get massive amounts of data, from sensors. Every gadget or appliance or auto you can connect to the Internet, will provide information on people’s energy usage and other habits. Then we can create really targeted solutions.

So often, city planners and tech companies alike think that such a plan, such a focus on one big connected, data-driven urban system would be about hardware, primarily. It seems like there’s a lot of room for creative innovation, namely in new services. What’s necessary to push people beyond idea that ICT is not end but start, right?

People need to realize the future of cities is not about devices! We always say that one day, technology will be built into cities, you’ll get ICT systems from the beginning, as in the city we talked about in South Korea.

But it’s really not about equipment—it’s about services.

Still, cities need to understand that a common tech infrastructure makes a city more competitive. For citizens: the quality of life is better. They can get online, make use of smart technologies, and enjoy their social networking or other online services when they have an ICT system that works really well.

Urban planners so often get excited about creating new, iconic buildings, and then worry about bringing in the technology later. We suggest that architects and city officials think about the technology from the beginning. Embrace technology in your integrated urban or building plan as just another utility. The network can only do what the network can enable. How great will it be when anyone can assume their iPads will work anywhere and everywhere. Plus, there will be an explosion of services that will come with the coming deluge of big and open data.

What key concerns are emerging for industrial and interface designers and those in other creative industries, specifically, as cities evolve? And what new types of devices and services would you like to see?

I’d advise for designers to embrace technology in their concepts, just as architects and city planners should. They could ask, how to include technology in design? It’s fascinating to see how technology is integrated or not in various products today. A big concern, I believe, is how to make new, smart technologies more accessible, warmer. Clean tech has a lot of design challenges, from an infrastructure point of view.

But there is hope. A good precedent is television; TVs in the past were ugly. Now, they are designed to be integrated beautifully into spaces. The emergence of the flat-screen TV dramatically changed the experience of monitors in any kind of room.

I would love to see designers and engineers play with the whiteboard concept…imagine interactive whiteboards set up in communities around the world. We could see creative conversations happening in real time between friends in San Francisco and Sao Paolo, and not just within offices. From a design point of view, it would be great to see an evolution beyond just a clean, cool screen, generally speaking.

Also, I think sound is very important as we move forward with new communication technologies. We learned this when we developed our telepresence systems—any delay in sound makes the experience unbelievable. If you can’t interrupt in real time, or sing together, it’s not a real enough experience. So I’d love to see designers and architects keep sound quality, video quality in mind as they integrate communications tech in new cities, and think of the urban environments they design as a work of art—in other words, a wonderful human experience.

Mindsharing is a new, monthly column on PSFK, featuring conversations on timely topics with C-level executives around the world. The Q & As are conducted by Reena Jana, executive editor at frog, a design and innovation consultancy, and former Innovation Dept. Editor at BusinessWeek. Click here for more inspiring ideas from frog.

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