'Smart city solutions are 'smart' only if they are managed centrally.'

We had a chat with Tamás Vahl, Distribution Sector Industry Leader at IBM Central and Eastern Europe, and a veteran manager in the IT industry. We are happy to welcome him as a speaker at the upcoming 2nd Smart City 360° Summit in Bratislava, taking place on 22-24 November 2016. According to Vahl, it is crucial that steps taken towards efficient smart cities are systemic, and the obstacles are not just economic, but also cultural.

Could you summarize the scope of your current work and what you are coming to share with everyone at the Smart City 360° Summit?

My current work is quite broad, and just one part of it is related to smart cities because I have got a number of other duties – I’m covering energy and utilities, the distribution sector, and quite a number of other areas. In that respect, smart city is mainly related if you take these areas to a certain part of the logistics, so I think that if you talk about smart cities – and this is what I said a year ago – smart city is practically everywhere because it’s a question of efficient managing of different areas of our lives. And it isn’t necessarily directly connected to cities by the way. As you know, there are companies that are using smart city solutions internally, for their own purposes. And obviously there are areas that are not city-specific, like toll systems and all this logistics management which is outside the city scope. In that regard, smart city is in a way a misleading term. The point is that now I have a broader scale of opportunities to work with clients and companies who are interested in solutions outside of cities of course.

Some people call an intelligent lamp post a smart city solution, others call a parking system, or some smart meter-reading a smart city solution. As standalone solutions, none of these in my eyes are what I call “smart”.

Take an energy company for example; I am very interested in electric vehicles (EVs) and the logistics surrounding them – loading stations and all these things. I think that that’s a very important part for the future development of not just our cities, but of the transportation of both people and goods.

What, to you, constitutes the “smartness” of a smart city?

Smartness is based on a network of different areas. This is an issue that I see – some people call an intelligent lamp post a smart city solution, others call a parking system, or some smart meter-reading a smart city solution. As standalone solutions, none of these in my eyes are what I call “smart”.
Because it must be a kind of network of solutions to bring the complexity. That way, you can manage based on the data that you get from everything that you build as a component of a smart city. You manage centrally, and you can exchange all this information coming from sensors, cameras, meter-readers, or cars everywhere into one “central brain” – as I would call it – and then from this brain, exchange of information makes it possible that you manage whatever it is that you want to manage, whether it’s a lamp post or a parking solution, on the basis of shared knowledge, dynamically, at the same time.

That is the interesting part of it, it shouldn’t be a static management where you say that, for example, pollution toll or whatever you call it is a static thing where you enter a city and pay 5 euros or whatever, but the point is to dynamically change it based on the weather conditions, based on the number of cars on the road, based on the available parking places, based on whatever is important to balance the load on the roads, and that’s the key, that all this information has to come into one central brain. Because if you are separating these, you don’t have something that’s smart, but practically an island solution.

And you could say that you want a smart city and you want to start with islands – which is okay – but  you have to know where you want to end up, and this is obviously possible only if you have a strategy where all these parts, all these islands, will be connected at the end of the day. And as soon as you have an island ready, it has to connect to a level-up system.

And by the way, it is also important to note that this is not somebody’s private ownership that we are talking about, whether it’s a municipality or a company. It is shared information so if I am talking about a brain, I am not talking about somebody’s ownership over that brain, I am talking about something that is accessible to anybody who needs the data, so that they can run their own part in the most efficient way. So I have my cameras, you have your cameras, and he has his cameras, and we don’t share the information, we are losing all the input that is coming from the others. Though we think we are managing our part well enough, we are not because we are losing a lot of information that we don’t want to give to others, and they don’t want to give to us. That doesn’t work. It only works if you have an agreement that everybody shares their data openly, and what they do with that data afterwards is their private decision.

We are talking about big data all the time, but this is a very general expression. I would say that all the data we can have, whether it’s a small amount or a large amount, how big it is, or how big it will grow, all that depends on a lot of circumstances. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that you share this data and we can then use this data on any solution that we want to do ourselves, and then share all the input with others as well. This is smart.

Does the region of Central and Eastern Europe have any noteworthy specifics with regards to how the cities there approach the idea of smart cities? Are there any problems and obstacles that are specific to that region?

I think it’s always – just as with any other area, be it economics or cultural life – that you have a certain level of development and you are compared to other parts in the world or other cities, and I think that if you pick some cities or some solutions from the Western Europe, the US, or some parts of Asia, there might be areas, cities, and companies that are farther ahead, I think that much is clear. So if we are looking for references, in most cases we are not looking inside the Central and Eastern Europe. This is partly an economic issue – the issue becomes whether I’m focusing on is building the road first, instead of building or developing smart solutions within a city. The question when building the road – because I need it – is whether I’m already building it in a way that is going to serve the smart concepts that I know are coming.
I was in a country recently where they said they wanted to be logistical hub, and they are building logistics centres, road connections and so on, in order to achieve this goal, to play a major role as a logistics hub in international trade. When they described it, I asked “What about autonomous cars? What about robotics in warehouses? What about all the automation and artificial intelligence that is foreseeable in the next five or ten years?” Which – by the way – if you are talking about a logistical hub that you are just starting to build, it’s very very close. And the important part is that – yes, they are building roads – but do they have the sensors in there? Do they have the solutions that will serve these purposes five years from now, or do they just build roads? That’s the question. In some cities and countries, they are looking into this, in others not so much.

There are more advanced and less advanced approaches of people and organizations, and even though everybody thinks that they have to compete for labor force and investments, it can be very misleading to think that you open a kindergarten and everybody’s happy. At the end of the day, you need to run the city, country or region in a way that shows long-term competitiveness. And at this point of time, I think we are already there where we have to take all these technologies into consideration. If we don’t do that, we are living in the past and we will not be competitive in five years time. Maybe today we can sell our cheap labor force, but in five years cheap labor force will not matter because efficiency of automation will devalue everything that we have at the moment. That is one of the items that is very typical in the region.

Your current position as the Smart Cities Initiative Leader in IBM mentions support of specific light-house projects. What are some examples of these projects?

If we are talking about our region, these projects are still in the phase of development so some milestones have been reached, and I would have to check whether I’m allowed to say that this or that project is already something that we reference, because that’s not my decision, it’s the decision of our clients.
But as an example. we are working on a regional development of complex transportation solution in one case, we are working on an autonomous energy supply for a smaller city of roughly 100,000 people, we are working obviously on some toll and parking solutions… As I said, these are islands at the moment, as I see them, whereas, for example, the autonomous energy city could be something that is a complex, and makes a lot of sense from my perspective.

The most critical part is that the cities themselves are mainly going in the direction of traffic, though I have to say one important thing when comparing our region with Western Europe. I just returned from Copenhagen, which as you know is one of the so-called “green” cities in Europe. And that is a city where you have the sidewalk for the people to walk, you have the lane for the cars, and then you have a similar sized lane on each side of the road that is just for bicycles. And this is covering most of Copenhagen, certainly the center of the city is covered. And at the same time, they have a lot of electric cars, a lot of rental bicycles, public transportation is very well managed, and what is important at the same time – and this is very typical for Western Europe – the younger generation does not want to own a car any longer. In Denmark in general, cars are extremely expensive anyway, but from a transport management perspective, from the perspective of air pollution, this is very positive. It’s bringing people to look for alternatives, and as I said, younger generation is not looking to own a car just to own a car.

In our region, it is still an important goal for somebody who is just starting in their job – I want a car, I want a girlfriend, I want a house or whatever – but the car is still relatively high on the list, whereas in the Western Europe it is not. It’s a cultural thing, obviously.

I’m mentioning this because it needs to be clear that it’s on one side a management question, on the other side it’s a cultural question, and how you combine the two, how you manage also the culture in a country or a city, that depends very strongly on the locals. Because I think that if you enable people to have cheap rental cars and good public transportation, you can manage it in a way that the need for private car decreases and you can manage your city much better versus having a million commuters coming into the city every day and make a huge mess because everybody is standing still in major intersections.
As long as you have a million cars for a city that does not take a million cars, you will have to find a different way to manage it. There are a lot of ways, but one of them is definitely cultural.