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Tech & Digitalisation

Connected systems - rethinking cities in the age of mass data

Commentary22nd September 2021

As policy leaders around the world look to the future beyond COVID, a new focus is emerging on how to use the huge volumes of data generated each day in our communities to improve quality of life.  

Our cities are increasingly connected, with data from smart infrastructure, wearables, transport networks, energy infrastructure and health systems being combined to offer a new picture of our urban lifestyles. The use of these smart technologies could deliver an improvement of 10 to 30 percent in urban quality of life - through faster journey times due to real-time transport information, reduced energy bills thanks to dynamic energy tariffs, and air quality monitoring to drive policy change around urban emissions.

Translating these insights to practical change requires new strategies from city governments in creating system interoperability, and managing technology governance and cyber security.

This will require an adaptive response. Our communities are complex systems, and policy makers will be tasked with redesigning urban technology systems in real time, testing technical changes and monitoring citizens’ behavioural responses, before trying and rapidly iterating additional approaches. The challenge for policy makers is to not only fly the aircraft, but both fly and redesign it in flight.

A new tech stack will be key to unlocking the benefits of smart infrastructure. This is the ‘interoperable spine’ - integrating the technical, institutional, and people-focused elements of connected infrastructure – so that the benefits of data can be realised. These areas are interdependent and collectively play a critical role in translating data into actionable change on the ground. Finally, it sets out a roadmap for policy makers and systems leaders as they take this work into the future.

Managing the tech stack in our cities  

Data gathering, management and connectivity.

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the raw data that can be collected through our infrastructure. This raw data collection covers a range of inputs including those integrated into existing infrastructure, like electric vehicle charging via lamp posts and broader monitoring of domestic and industrial energy use. The use mobile sensors, like London’s innovative use of pigeons to track nitrogen dioxide levels across the city, are also becoming more common, alongside smartphone data.

A high-speed communications network is also essential. While the delivery of 5G coverage remains a complex task, one quarter of the global population is likely to gain high band 5G coverage by 2030 and it is likely that new approaches to low-orbit satellite communication will emerge, reducing costs over the next decade.

This new generation of sensors and data require clear data architecture strategies, with regular reviews, to ensure data is categorised and stored appropriately. Doing so will enable partners to model the data and draw insights that can then be applied to improving processes in our cities.

Institutional access and application. 

Integrating data sets from multiple sources, including the private sector, is an important part of unlocking the benefits of data in our cities. In London, Google-owned Waze incorporates data directly from Transport for London (TfL) and other public sources to shave a few minutes off car travel. Yet the data also flows from Waze back to TfL, with aggregated data from the app – including journey patterns and issues like potholes and broken traffic lights - being integrated into TfL’s control centre to facilitate centralised management of the city. This kind of data integration demonstrates the value of open, accessible data that can be used across applications. While a similar proposal from public authorities in NYC provoked a legal battle with taxi providers, who were resistant to sharing aggregated data from their services, with the right incentives TfL / Waze-style partnerships offer a model for other cities on how data can be effectively shared between institutions. 

Making the data accessible to citizens. 

When used well, data gives citizens a new level of insight, helping them use more convenient or cheaper services. For example, with dynamic energy pricing, citizens can choose to use appliances more when demand is low, potentially leading to savings in energy bills. For policy makers and providers, a regular assurance process is needed to check whether smart infrastructure systems are providing better value for customers and citizens, and that all sources of insight are being optimised. For example, are data sources being integrated from all parties in the value chain - customers, asset managers, contractors, suppliers, manufacturers, maintenance operations and logistics? This process of assurance relies on insights from technical actors as well as managers and citizens, as our cities evolve and adapt regularly.

The way forward 

As we look ahead to the increasing prevalence of smart infrastructure and connected devices across our cities, there are both opportunities and challenges for policy makers to understand. The following presents some of the key questions that should be addressed.

Safety first. 

What is the city’s core security capability and how do they conduct ongoing security assessments across assets? What are the security obligations of suppliers across the city? What assurance processes exist for suppliers as part of contracts, including reporting suspicious or malicious activity? How will cities protect citizens if / when smart infrastructure algorithms make unexpected, adverse decisions?

While consumer businesses have grown increasingly conscious of cyber risks, connected infrastructure acts as a new frontier for hackers. It offers a way into complex energy, transport and infrastructure services, with the potential to disrupt an entire city. In May 2021 US firm Colonial Pipeline paid hackers $5m USD, after they held up the country’s largest fuel pipeline. Shipments from the company are responsible for much of the East Coast’s gasoline supply, and the hack triggered a sizeable political response, after lines emerged at gas stations across multiple states. A similar event took place earlier this year at Florida Water, with hackers increasing the level of sodium hydroxide in the water to 100 times its normal level. Staff intervened before the new chemical mix reached the drinking water supply, but the hack demonstrates the very real risk to population health from malicious infrastructure interventions.

Beyond this, clearly defined approaches to privacy and risk are also essential for open systems to build public trust. These may include sharing only aggregate-level data across smart infrastructure partners, designing federated learning systems that conduct analysis on distributed servers so separate organisations can hold their own data, or implementing independent data trusts that allow analysis to be conducted without sharing the underlying data. When breaches do occur, clarity over whether the public agency, the hardware manufacturer or the software developer has responsibility will be key. Similarly, public bodies and private sector partners will need to develop appropriate risk-sharing approaches, in close tandem with insurers, as the market for smart infrastructure insurance matures.

Promote open and standardised data systems.  

Is a common data standard in place across a city's full suite of connected systems? What proprietary technology is built into existing systems?

Interoperability between systems is a hallmark of connected infrastructure. The UK’s Open Data Institute is just one of the institutions seeking to develop new models for effective data governance and collaboration. Effective and open data systems will rely on both technological and institutional advances, for example in setting up a data trust with the proper organisational and technical design for the application at hand.

Over the past decade, cities across the world have developed open data portals to improve transparency and civic engagement. The availability of APIs opens these resources further to public and private developers to build software applications that reuse these data, for example to provide public transport updates in real time. As these uses proliferate, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Data Catalog Vocabulary sets formatting standards for open data, improving connectivity across different portals and the reuse of software applications across settings. The EU’s Connecting Europe Facility applies this capability to connect data across European cities, facilitating access and reuse. What’s more, the EU data standard adapts the W3C standard to include metadata machine-translated in 24 languages in line with EU standards to ensure that all citizens across Europe can benefit from this access. By adapting international standards to the local context, European policymakers gain the technical benefits of standardisation while fulfilling local people-focused criteria.

Model the system dynamics.  

What dependencies exist in the city’s connected infrastructure (systems and suppliers)? What other parts of government operations use the data / rely on the insights? What time delays might exist in the system?

Models and processes exist to help us understand the interconnections between stakeholders and technologies in the complex adaptive systems we live in. A-EVs will increasingly connect to smart phones, traffic systems, vehicle-to-grid charging, and home security systems. Given the interconnection of these discrete parts of infrastructure, hackers will increasingly focus on the weakest link in the system, which may indeed be human behaviour.

Digital twins provide one way to map the dynamics of systems. By creating a digital clone of a real-world object or system, the model can be used to predict how the physical counterpart will respond in future - for example, to a major increase in traffic or even an extreme climate event. Digital twins of Shanghai and Singapore now exist, and efforts are underway to create a network of digital twins with secure data sharing and shared standards. These models are being used to help different stakeholders understand how new construction and changes to the transport system will impact the full city / community. Start-ups like Cybellum are also creating ‘cyber digital twins’ for each component in autonomous electric vehicles (A-EVs) to regularly check the car software and notify manufacturers of any irregularities.
By being able to undertake live simulations - as well as mapping how a city may change over time - systems models can be a critical tool in helping design better policies and practices in our communities. In particular, these tools will help policymakers recognise and account for system dynamics—including non-linear interactions among system elements, feedback mechanisms, and tipping points—helping increase resilience in the face of natural and social challenges. 


As the scale and complexity of connected technologies change, policymakers will need to continually balance the technical, institutional, and people-focused aspects of systems to improve services for citizens. 

This is particularly important given that, by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in urban areas, and 60 percent of the urban areas that’ll exist in 2050 are yet to be built. With many of these communities based in climate-stressed areas, data and technology will help us deliver improved quality of life, while managing the environmental impact, planning and maintenance, and delivery of public services in complex systems. 

Over the coming months we will be developing blueprints for governments and policy makers on how connected systems can be used to improve urban health and unlock mobility as a service in our urban centres. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with others working on these issues.  


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