One of the themes of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This ‘revolution’ is the move to a much more automated society. Therefore, it’s all about conjoining processes via ‘the network’, and machines making their own decisions based on some type of ‘deep learning’ or AI. The end-game of the revolution, it is proposed, is all about making society a better, easier, happier place in which to live.

The move to an automated society is rather complex. As the organisers of the Congress put it, “this theme [the fourth industrial revolution] unravels the complex web of technology trends, partnerships, business concerns and opportunities that enterprises of all kinds need to address to survive and thrive in a digital automated world, and the demands this places on city and national governments.” 

Cities and nations are slow moving ships. They are also highly complex and re-engineering them is extremely difficult. Moreover, the ‘estate’ (infrastructure and built environment) may not be suited to a rapid move to the fourth revolution.

‘Revolution’ implies some type of big bang solution. But it’s probably better to think of relatively quick (but iterative) wins that collectively create the revolution (over time).

For example, several years ago, London Underground introduced the Oyster card. This was a new contactless ticketing system that removed the need for paper tickets. Commuters could charge up their cards online and just go use the tube. With contactless technology installed in the ticket barriers, London Underground was also able to announce just a couple of years ago that – in addition to Oyster cards – commuters could also use contactless payment cards and mobile phone contactless payment. This meant non-Londoners and day-trippers could also use contactless payment without purchasing an Oyster card. Soon Google and other mapping vendors added live feeds from Transport for London into mobile mapping apps, meaning that passengers could avoid very busy routes (e.g. during the London 2012 Olympics). Therefore, progress is iterative. But, over time, multiple actors and layers of innovation make things smarter, and simpler to use and enhance customer experience.

In time, so-called ‘deep learning’ could augment live feeds to make suggestions re. alternative travel routes based on aggregated data and data projections. Increased use of multi-functional sensors around cities could allow more information to be communicated more quickly to make the city experience better. Recently, the University of Manchester announced that it had developed a new type of graphene based sensor that could be integrated into an RFID chip that could then communicate with a wide area network. Over time, graphene sensors will be able to communicate multiple types of sensor information: possibly sensing pollutants, warfare agents, even explosives, thereby protecting citizens. Or simply monitoring air quality. But sensors will abound, measuring and feeding both quantitative and qualitative data.

Sensors, of course, are just one element of a wider ecosystem designed to augment and improve the environment and the fixed estate of the city. Over time sensors will provide the networks upon which self-driving vehicles will depend, or unmanned public transport. Sensors will also help to visualise the city with citizens, themselves, feeding into these data visualisations using pervasive mobile devices and even wearable (mobile) sensors.

These things must work together. The orchestration doesn’t necessarily require master planning or grand, centralised schemes. Rather it’s about data sharing and different specialists looking at different but interlocking problems in their own way. Collectively they tend to spark ideas, opportunities and improvements off each other. Increasingly, the fourth industrial revolution feels like evolution.

Sensors and the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) have key parts to play. But national government, too, needs to be more aware of the digital opportunities available. According to IHS Markit Technology, as of the second quarter of 2017, the United Kingdom was the country with the highest number of smart city projects (45) in Europe. This helps the UK build significant expertise – and expertise that has relevance well beyond these shores.

It’s said that smart cities, increasingly, need to focus on the three I’s i.e. they need to be instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. Instrumentation (and data) is of little use if no-one sees it or acts upon it. Similarly, it’s tricky to allow people to make smarter decisions if the information is out of date or inaccurate or simply not available. The end-game is about making society a bit better for the people who live in it. Technology, unquestionably, can help.