urban crowd and futuristic architecture in london uk

From the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, countless moments throughout our day connect us to the people around us and the place we live. Collectively, these interactions make a city hum with life, fuelled by a galaxy of information responding simultaneously to the needs of millions of citizens every second of every day. This has never been more true, as metropolitan centres like London grow into the smart cities of tomorrow.

Over the last two decades, the idea of a smart city has evolved beyond the centralised, futuristic metropolis people once envisioned. Today's smart city focuses on those who live in it rather than technology, says Dr. Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence (AI) solutions firm and incubator.

They are built on the backs of public-private partnerships, with private enterprises providing the expertise and funding that governments require to carry out innovative solutions.

dr ayesha hhanna

“It's really going back to the basics and thinking, ‘What is the specific problem that a citizen faces ... from the moment that a citizen is born to the moment that they cease to exist?’” Khanna says.

“How can we make it higher quality, more efficient and more sustainable? That is really the smart city people talk about now.”

London has ambitious goals: to make walking, cycling or public transportation 80 percent of all trips in the city by 2041; to become a zero-waste city by 2026; to recycle 65 percent of its municipal waste and transition to zero emissions by 2030.

Building a smart city is a growth and development process that spans years – and sometimes decades, says Khanna, who is a strategic advisor on artificial intelligence (AI) and smart cities and serves on the board of Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in Singapore, which develops and regulates the city-state's technology sector.

Singapore has been a test bed for innovation and is considered among the smartest cities in the world. London, a city with some 2,000 years of history and now a global FinTech leader, has been on its own smart-city journey for quite some time, says Khanna.

From food security to environmental sustainability

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the enormous impact it had on the global food supply chain could be felt around the world, accelerating concerns about global food security. By 2050, the planet's projected population will approach 10 billion, with food demand expected to increase by more than 55 percent from 2010 levels, according to the World Economic Forum.

Now, imagine growing fresh produce year-round in a perfect, pesticide-free environment using 100 percent renewable energy and 70 percent less water. Oblivious to seasonal weather changes, the produce can be on your dinner table the same day it's harvested.

Deep under the bustling streets of south London, less than a mile from New Covent Garden Market, there is a farm doing just that. Located 33 metres below the street, in a former World War II raid shelter in Clapham, Growing Underground is a carbon-neutral farm that aims to produce more than 60 tonnes of produce per year from a space about the size of a single tennis court. That's 12 times more per unit area than a traditional greenhouse, meeting the produce needs of 10,000 people, according to the University of Cambridge, a collaborator in the enterprise. Meanwhile, a “digital twin” located at the university, roughly two hours away, monitors, adjusts and optimises all aspects of the farm, including light, humidity, water levels and temperature.

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“That is very unique. And that is precisely the kind of thing where, once this is done in London, there's a great opportunity not only to provide that for the city's residents, but then to export it across the world,” says Khanna.

Innovative projects like Growing Underground demonstrate not only how sustainable cities can be built, but also how challenges such as food security can be resolved.

Smart cities in a post-pandemic world

For those tired of the hustle and bustle of city life, the pandemic has prompted them to wonder whether living in a city is even necessary – in turn raising the question of what this means for the cities of tomorrow.

Khanna is not worried about a mass exodus.

“Cities will continue to attract talent and capital,” she says, adding that the appeal of research and development access, test beds to work on and investment money will never diminish.

People's desire for short commutes has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, Khanna says. Having what we need readily accessible within 15 minutes – whether it is our child's school, our doctor or even the grocery store – has become more important, according to Khanna. It may mean living in multifunctional spaces, buildings that have terraces that can receive drone deliveries, and smaller hospital clinics nearby that use AI for triaging.

Babylon Health, a London-based digital health company, allows patients to connect with different kinds of physicians through telemedicine, but also incorporates an AI doctor who can assist with personalised health assessments right from the patient's home. The company, which describes its mission as making healthcare more accessible and affordable, already provides services for the NHS.

It is an example of how private-public partnerships can benefit residents, Khanna says.

Solving data privacy concerns and AI bias

With the enormous amount of personal information required to facilitate millions of lives, however, issues around data become inevitable points of contention, Khanna says.

“When we live amongst machines, we have to take the best that they offer, but we also have to mitigate all the risks,” she says.

In Toronto, Alphabet Inc.'s Sidewalk Labs had an ambitious vision to build a data-driven, sustainable and affordable high-tech community. The plan was scrapped in 2020 due to the economic uncertainty driven by the pandemic, but the project had long been plagued by concerns around data privacy, governance and transparency.

Still, Khanna says data governance has matured alongside the explosion in information and that many of the ethical concerns are being addressed through education, regulatory frameworks and data localisation.

The strict standards set by the European Commission through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, are becoming a global model. Individuals have the right to be “forgotten” and can request their information be deleted, and there are proposals for tough rules around when facial recognition can and can not be used. Increasingly, countries also view data as a national asset, Khanna adds, preventing private companies from transferring it across borders.

Another concern is the issue of bias in algorithms and AI systems. If a program is trained primarily on an incomplete or imbalanced set of data, the results will inevitably be wrong.

There are ways to mitigate this issue too, Khanna says: through data governance, tools that flag biases, having a diverse group of employees who can identify these issues and a board of governors that sets the right tone for a company.

The digital divide and disrupting the labour market

Smart cities are meant to improve the lives of their citizens, but there are also concerns they will leave some behind, including those who have difficulty navigating a technology-driven world and those whose jobs are replaced by digital automation.

If deployed correctly, smart cities can actually bridge the gap between those with access to technology, a good education and good healthcare, and those who do not, Khanna says. What was once out of reach, like an expensive education, becomes more accessible and affordable. For example, online education programmes such as Coursera offer access to courses and certificates from respected universities for a very modest cost.

In London, a number of FinTech companies are helping to build that bridge, from digital banks like Starling to start-ups like car insurance provider Marshmallow. These companies use data and AI to bring better, more affordable services to a broader and more diverse group of users.

“They're able to access these services through their mobile phones for a fraction of the cost,” Khanna says.

In Singapore, the job of a “digital ambassador” is to help teach seniors how to use technology, from smart devices to making e-payments. At the same time, the government has programmes, such as subsidised internships, that help retrain people who have lost their jobs, Khanna notes.

“It gives them a stepping stone to their next career or the evolution of their career,” she says. In other countries, solutions involving universal basic income, subsidies and grants are also offered to bridge the divide and ensure no one is left behind in the digital revolution.

Whether it's checking things like a bus schedule, the weather or the air quality, avoiding traffic jams, paying bills or sending money to family overseas, smart cities today are designed with a focus on building a better quality of life. The innovations flourishing in London exemplify the transformational journey towards a smarter, more efficient city.

“Everybody starts to move up the social mobility ladder, and that's what we really want,” says Khanna.

“I think that is a huge promise of this digitisation – that it's not a threat. It's one of the promises we can look forward to.”