Trewin's Blog

Trewin Restorick on emerging smart technologies

 

Smart or Sinister? The growth of ‘Smart’ thinking

15.03.2012

In a room in Brussels a diverse group from across Europe was brought together by Hitachi to explore how partnerships between business and civil organisations could create smart city communities.

Hitachi is a company built on strong engineering and design principles which is gradually changing its business model to take advantage of the transition to a low carbon economy. One of their core beliefs is that the smart use of technology can provide social, financial and environmental benefits. It is hard to argue with the principle and Hitachi is not alone in advocating the solution. Numerous other companies such as IBM are heavily promoting the opportunities that smart technology presents.

‘Smart’ benefits

These companies argue that if we could create smart grids and smart metering it would have massive carbon savings. Balancing the energy demand from households would reduce the need for highly inefficient power stations that are only there to cope with peak demand requirements. If we could create better storage facilities on the grid we wouldn’t have the current ridiculous situation where wind companies are sometimes paid to not generate electricity. 

More interestingly local energy storage devices and smart metering could enable local energy markets to be created with people selling the energy they generate at a cheaper price to neighbours.

Smart technology could also transform our transport systems. Tracking systems on vehicles could help optimise speeds and routing, encourage fuel efficient driving and cut congestion. A report commissioned by Vodafone calculated that if introduced across Europe these simple transport changes alone could save €13.2 billion in energy bills.

Smart technology could also bring social as well as environmental benefits. The NHS is facing the daunting challenge of making £20 billion of efficiency savings over the next four years. One area where this could be achieved is by changing the way health services are provided to people facing long-term conditions. The 5% of patients who have one or more long-term conditions currently account for 49% of all inpatient bed days.

Smart technology, or tele-health, can enable patients with long-term conditions to remotely monitor a range of daily vital signs such as blood pressure, oxygen saturation, pulse rate, temperature and weight. This also provides trend data for clinical teams.

Recent research has shown that getting people to take their own readings not only reduces pressure on NHS time it also provides patients with a greater understanding of their own condition thereby promoting improved self-management. As a result of these dual benefits research shows a 20% reduction in emergency admissions, increased levels of patient satisfaction and a 45% reduction in mortality.

The problem of complexity

Why then are these technologies not being introduced faster? The debate in Brussels quickly settled on the problem of complexity. It was argued that the current way we procure things is simply not capable of coping with solutions that require collaboration between many different sectors and technologies. 

The changes required across all sectors are profound. It is difficult to find an organisation that has the authority, the knowledge, the desire or the financial capacity to take a leadership role in bringing together the partners in order to create smarter solutions. It is difficult but not impossible. Even within the small group in Brussels we heard of a number of small scale projects in cities such as Nice where smart technology is making a significant difference.

Smart or sinister?

Perhaps there is a larger challenge to the introduction of smart solutions. That challenge is the issue of trust. Smart technologies invariably require the collection of large amounts of data often of a personal nature. The discussion in Brussels highlighted that people are increasingly suspicious about why this data is being collected, who holds it and how it is being used.

In the UK, government funded research found that the majority of people did not trust energy companies to hold data about the way that they used their energy in their homes. This was still the case even if this data would enable the energy company to better manage energy flows, helping the households to save money and to cut carbon emissions.

It is not just in the UK where there is this deep suspicion and reluctance to make more personal data available. Municipalities from across Europe reported that their citizens were wary of personal data being made available to companies particularly around their energy use. 

The challenge

It is clear that smart technology could help speed us towards a more sustainable low carbon economy – providing significant social and financial benefits on route. Effectively introducing these technologies requires complicated new forms of collaboration. This is a challenge but one that is surmountable as the benefits of smart solutions become ever more apparent. However, there is probably a bigger obstacle to overcome which is around public trust. New thinking is needed about who holds the data captured and more transparency needed about why it is being collected and how it will be used.