Not consumers, not users but citizens will inhabit smart cities, said author and futurist Ben Hammersley at the NXP panel discussion on Urban Living hosted at the Mobile World Congress.

Semiconductor manufacturer NXP churns out billions of chips a year. Those chips profoundly change our world, connecting people, devices and adding intelligence to things. While society is still grappling with issues born out of the emergence of the world wide web such as online privacy, cybersecurity and mass surveillance the digital revolution steamrolls on, burrowing deeper into our physical world as it moves on to transportation and the built environment.

NXP, aware of the major role it plays in the ongoing revolution - the Dutch company's merger with Texas-based Freescale announced in early March positions the combined enterprise firmly in the top 10 of the industry - initiated a series of discussions about the impact of technology on society at the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona last week.

During the Urban Living Forum the panelists all agreed that it is time for the tech industry to grow up and take responsibility. Tech companies building the cities of tomorrow need to look beyond engineering optimal solutions and engage with the people living there.

The mythical sales manager

The conversation about smart cities often reveals a lack of understanding of social context, according to Hammersley. The dominant concept is a city filled with sensors generating as much data as possible. That flood of information is generously made available to citizens so they can optimize their lives.

But most people don't want to optimize their lives.

A person, newly arrived in a city, is looking for a bar/restaurant/coffee. He can rely on his mobile device to open up the city to him and direct him to a place of his liking. This frequently used scenario of what our future cities will bring us, betrays that smart cities are often envisioned with a particular type of person in mind: a white dude, well-educated, managing job at a tech company, fresh out of the airport to attend a conference.

The mythical sales manager, Hammersley calls him, and he, not-so-coincidently, has many characteristics in common with people who are at the forefront of designing and building smart cities.

Layers on top of cities

But cities aren't primarily transit zones. For most people it's the environment where their entire life takes place, architect Areti Markopoulou points out. And the population includes the elderly, children, tech-illiterates and underprivileged people. Their needs may be better served with smart implementations like a white line on the streets guiding children walking home from school or better waste management.

“We need to define context”, she said, “what do we want to make smarter? In some of the megacities 50 to 70% of the people live in slums.”

“Who is taking the lead in designing the future scenario's of cities?”, Markopoulou asked. City planners and policy makers talk a lot to tech companies but rarely ask for input from architects and sociologists. “They need to invite others to the table to plan a strategy. If smart cities are only about dealing with technology we're heading the wrong way.”

The 'smart' in city should “not be a model that you layer on top of the city to force people into a way of living that they would not choose”, Hammersley added.


Tech companies should be more aware of their new role as political actors, added Martin Schoessler, a political affairs consultant and co-founder of CAUSA Consulting. In many ways these companies are now closer to citizens than governments, having found their way into homes, cars and pockets. That role comes with responsibility, said Schoessler, they need to be inclusive.

The roles of companies and policy makers has always been very different. Companies have only a small group of people to please, their customers. But policy makers need to please everybody. If a company screws up a product it'll have angry customers and loose market value, the damage may last a year or two. But urban planning is a long term process, do that wrong and people will have to live with it for decades.

Now that tech companies are moving into the political space they need to reflect on their implicit role, said Schoessler. “The energy sector and aviation industry have had this moment of clarity. We need to establish a hybrid space where innovative facilitators can engage in conversation with the industry.”

Secure and interoperable

“It's not one faction that is going to build smart cities”, said Asit Goel, NXP's Senior Vice President of Secure Monitoring and Control. “There is no way governments can do it all by themselves. Issues like security, ownership of data, we already have knowledge of that. But we know only half of the picture.”

But, Goel pointed out, the success or failure of smart cities also hinges on another aspect: “It has to just work”. He related how he recently transformed his house into a smart home. “I now have 7 apps to control lights in 4 bedrooms. Interoperability is important, everything I have should be attached to the gateway I want to use. Then I looked at the number of connected devices and realized: security just became a nightmare. Make it simple to work, make it secure, now am able to live in that smart city, able to live in that smart world.”

Smart cities won't suddenly one day appear. “It is not going to be one Big Bang event”, said Goel. “People ask me: 'When is the Internet of Things going to happen?'.” But we're already making it happen, all of us. People who go out to buy a new TV often come home with a smart TV, Goel explained. Not because they consciously want to contribute to rolling out the IoT or even decided on getting a smart TV beforehand. It's just there on the shop's shelf, more features, why not?

And it's the same with smart cities. Goel: “No one is going to say: now let us build a smart city. So if we don't pay attention, they'll just get smarter without a vision.”