Home5G‘Spending like the Jetsons, living like the Flintstones’ – the trouble with smart-city 5G

‘Spending like the Jetsons, living like the Flintstones’ – the trouble with smart-city 5G

The Lord Mayor of Dublin cut through the glad-handing and future-selling on the main stages at Smart City Expo World Congress 2019 in Barcelona yesterday (November 20), revealing at once the social divide 5G will cleave open if its rollout is handled incorrectly, and the struggle public authorities have to make smart-city technologies relevant to their citizens.

The challenge for civic authorities and technology firms is to show the value 5G brings to city services and local residents, said Paul McAuliffe, the Irish Fianna Fáil politician, in charge of Dublin City Council.

The headline, here, takes his best quote, but the message was serious; that the technology industry, despite its promise to deliver positive societal change with 5G and new smart city applications, risks alienating communities, instead of uniting them, as it invariably goes after better-off communities first. 

McAuliffe told a packed-out room in Barcelona: “People just want a home, a job, and a way to get to work. This idea of city FOMO – this fear of missing out – is what we are all engaged in, so no one is left behind. But we have to persuade people it is worth investing in, it is worth spending on. And my biggest concern is it is hardest to sell that message to the most disadvantaged communities.”

He said: “It is [about] value for money: ‘Why are you spending money on the Jetsons, when I’m living like the Flintstones?’” That is the question city authorities, engaged in the rollout of 5G for smart-city enablement in isolated tech zones such as Dublin’s Docklands, face canvassing on doorsteps. McAuliffe’s electoral ward, in Ballymun-Finglas, an outer suburb of Dublin, is one of the most deprived in the Irish capital. 

Its residents have little time for state-sponsored 5G programmes, he said; they want to know how their taxes are going to help with more fundamental concerns. The comparison with the Docklands tech industry, and the industry navel-gazing in the halls in Barcelona, was clear. 

“My electoral area has one of the highest opiate usage [rates], we have the highest levels of public housing; it is very disadvantaged. They don’t care about 5G. We have to persuade them it is important. But also, we have to answer their needs with 5G. It not about rolling out beta boxes on lamposts; it is about the use cases that will improve their lives. And we have a long way to go to flesh out those use cases.”

Smart Dublin, a smart-city cooperative combining the four local authorities in the Irish capital, has seen at least €1.2 million of funding allocated for smart city projects, geared around two sets of civic challenges: grouped as mobility, connectivity and logistics, and as dumping, flooding and way-finding

The city has also been working with Dense Air, a subsidiary of network infrastructure vendor Airspan, to deploy a 5G small-cell network in the Docklands area, the city’s new tech district. The project, which uses a neutral host model, is supposed to hasten network densification in support of in-building connectivity, IoT implementations, and wireless backhaul, and provide a springboard for new innovation. 

The Docklands testbed seeks to bring together key elements, notably local startups and large (mostly foreign) corporations, which have made Dublin their home (“mentoring by large companies, implementation by small companies”). “It is in the heart of Docklands, where the tech companies are, so it is not going to disadvantaged communities. But it is in the review stage,” he said. 

Dublin co-op – four local authorities have put up €1.2 million to tackle smart-city challenges (Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins)

But the only way is for cities, supported by telecoms operators and tech providers, to enter into a closer dialogue about smart-city technologies, including 5G, both with their own siloed departments and with directly with citizens.

“One of the challenges we’ve found internally is the owner of light pole, say, is the traffic department, which is protective of its assets – and for good reason, because it has responsibility for them, and it has learned over time what the city wants,” he said. As well, 5G networks and smart-city tech will change the physical landscape in cities. 

“There is this issue about public domain. You know, even the location of doing poo bin can set of a public meeting in an area,” he said.

He explained: “We are [with], for the first time since electrification, going to have a strong physical presence on the streets. And that’s going to force Mrs Murphy to ask: ‘What’s that plastic box on that pole? What does it do? How’s it going to impact me? And why is my city spending [my money] on it?’ And I don’t think any city has started to have that conversation with their citizens. 

“Citizens have a lot of concerns. Some of those will be easy for tech people to set aside, and say: ‘That’s a Luddite concern’. But as politicians we have to persuade people on all of our policies, and sometimes we have 90 seconds at the door. So as we roll 5G out, we need to have a conversation around, for example, the ethics [and value] of why we are doing business as a public project.”

The previous discussion on stage in Barcelona had presented the old analogy of digital technology like a virtual nervous system. McAuliffe opened his by stating: “We are a nervous city-system, like every city.”

“For every one here, in this room, [the subject of] smart cities is important. But I am at a health conference next week [and the discussion is very different]. Our job is to balance those things, informed by the decision of the electorate every five years.”

The different perspectives on new digital technologies are magnified in cities, he said. “My worry [with 5G] is to do with scalability, going from a cluster to a city-wide deployment. Your worry is how you scale in technology terms, but mine about you how we scale it from city dialogue perspective.” 

The challenge is complicated by the state of politics, he suggested, and the loss of public faith in old institutions. 

“We are coming from a legacy, where these communities don’t trust us to provide housing, they don’t trust us to provide jobs, they don’t trust us to solve their health needs. So why should they trust us that 5G is going to be good? It’s a really difficult conversation. 

“Because commercial companies aren’t going to go to those areas first. We are going to have to make a difficult decision about ensuring the deployment covers all areas. But then, when it starts in those areas, we are going to have to persuade people it is worth forcing those companies to do it. And the way to do that is with use cases – it is about sparking the imagination of communities, and giving them ownership.”

The Smart Dublin project, which has fostered various city wide analytics initiatives, has managed this discipline well, said McAuliffe. 

He commented: “We have done this with our data projects in Dublin – to challenge them about the issues in cities, and show them how technologies can deliver those solutions. But over-promising is the worst thing you can do as a politician – because three years later someone else criticises your for over-promising and you’re gone. And you’re replaced with a more irresponsible politician who wants to get rid of 5G, right?”

The stakes are high, he said; if politicians and technologists do not make 5G for everyone, and smart cities are approached only as commercial exercises, then people will be left behind. And current political headwinds are liable to blow the dream of smart cities, where technology is a great leveller as well as a industrial transformer, off course.

“Politics is sliding towards this simplistic non-expert mode at the moment. You’re a little more familiar with the impact of that in the US, but I wouldn’t under-estimate it in Europe. Populism is on the rise, and a feeling of nostalgia for the past is being exploited by those on the populist right. And we need to make sure – whether it is climate change, or the rollout of technology – that we bring the basic needs of people with us. Because if we don’t, there are people out there ready to squash this.” 

The message applies everywhere, in every sector, as new digital technologies present a rare opportunity to shape the future. It was the most clear-sighted, and best articulated, keynote discussion of the Barcelona event – and of the whole conference season, perhaps. 

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