Reza Arghandeh, professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences and director, Collaborative Intelligent Infrastructure Lab, discusses his research on smart cities. He explains the differences between traditional and modern city-management approaches, why cities have yet to become fully smart yet—even though artificial intelligence and IoT has created major challenges for implementation.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, visit www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 07/21/2020 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:

How did you start your focus on, just, smart cities? You’re doing so much other work,

but what made you just focus on smart cities…?

Reza Arghandeh:

Thank you so much. That’s an interesting question. Basically, when I was a student, every day I walked from home to school, and just think about, myself, how, as an engineer, I can have more impact on the community, especially the community I lived in. Then, I come to this point that working on infrastructure is something that makes everybody happy, especially at the local level, and it can expand to the global level. That’s the reason, as electrical engineering, I put my focus on the smart grid and, later on, on the smart city.

Smedley:

When you look at smart cities, everybody’s thinking about how the cities are changing, when you think about urban and rural communities. Are we seeing a difference between what’s going to happen pre-COVID and post-COVID? Has it changed your research model…? Do you have to think differently now, or is your research still pretty much the same between the pre/post-COVID, with the idea nobody wants to live in the city anymore?

Arghandeh:

Very good question. I can say that, even now, the way our research was is totally changed after the COVID, with working from home, social distancing, and having everything basically online, including the courses we teach and basically the research program we have, which is done from our homes with my students and my colleagues. I think COVID pushed us to make everything online and utilize the digital world.

Smedley:

Do you think, though, that is long term, or is that going to be short term in the way people are thinking? I know you said that it’s changing, because that’s what I’m saying. Will this be a permanent… I know everybody uses the word “new normal,” but are we going to, at some point, all say, “Look. From now on, cities are going to change,” the way cities are built, the way cities think, the way we think of infrastructure? Is it going to be where we were all saying we were going to have these big urban cities? Does that mean urban is going to change permanently, or is this a short-lived… Eventually.

Not everyone’s going to move. I know right now we hear a lot of talk about Millennials wanting to go to rural, but is that short lived? Or is that now we’ve got to rethink… Because when you plan a city, it takes a long time to build a city. Is all the planning structure going to now change? I know we’re talking about the way we breathe, and the air, and all these HVAC systems, and all that is changing, touchless, and … We need to go and discuss all that, but what are we talking about with that very development?

Arghandeh:

I would say we cannot go basically undo everything that happened. There is no return. I think we have a permanent change in the way of for business, the way of for living, and the way of for communication. For example, at the enterprise level, there are lots of companies that, for long time, give this option to their worker to stay home and work from home. In universities a lot of courses now are offer online. For sure, next semester, I think most of the universities will provide the courses online. And it means that those courses will be available afterward as an online courses. We have more options for education system. In a supply and chain, people are encouraged to buy, even do grocery online. Now we have these stores here in Norway, in the U.S., all around other parts of the world that provide delivery to the homes. I don’t think this business model will totally change, go back to what it was before, but I guess we will have a combination of both, the digital base commerce and communication, and just the normal one.

Smedley:

That leads me to think, then, cities have to step up their game and get smarter. Because if they want to have the residents and be able to use artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, they have to be able to get there. I don’t think cities are fully smart yet. Would you agree?

Arghandeh:

I totally agree. I would say, despite the advancement we made in technology, still, a lot of those technology remain in the books or catalogs. They didn’t come in action. We need to bring AI and IoT into the action, and basically develop the services cities provide to the residents more as a digital form.

I think this COVID was a good pinch to a lot of cities to pay more attention to making things digital, services, and make them available for people online. Also from the other side, a lot of us stuck in our apartment, in your home for a couple months, and maybe we would despair what to do. This way we also start to use more our cellphone or laptops, the internet, to find out what’s going on and also to communicate with the, I would say, city operators.

Smedley:

Do you think that, when we look at COVID and we talk about this pandemic, we force cities, force these city managers to really take a look at and say, “Look, we have to do something, because if we don’t, we’re going to be behind.” Now they’ve got a lot of challenges that they have to think about. Because, as I mentioned, there’s touchless, there’s the idea of having an aggregating data to be able to interpret things, to be able to move faster, quicker in light of all the things that are happening. COVID brought all that to light in a much faster way.

Arghandeh:

Yes, absolutely. Just as an example, we are talking about the social distancing. In a simple word, social distancing means how many people are in a specific place of the city in a given time. If the cities have better understanding of the density of the people, the number of people in a specific neighborhood, a specific community, and how long they will be in that part of the city, the city have better idea about what is it, the connection between the people. How to provide them with electricity, with water, with the telecommunication, with security, and so on. I guess cities now just get this point that the data they are collecting needs to be used, needs to be analyzed, and comes into the decision-making platform so they know better where people are, what do they need, how they move, how they communicate within the city.

Smedley:

Let’s address that, because I think there’s potential implications and challenges for the cities, because a lot of companies are saying they’re not even going to send their employees, maybe, back to their offices in full scale until 2021. How does a city plan knowing what electricity, what water? How do they plan if they don’t know what that’s going to mean because they don’t know what offices are going to be occupied?

Arghandeh:

Yeah. Exactly. Because a lot of cities, especially for electricity, or water, or natural gas, they make planning based on historical data they have. For example, they would say, “For the next month, next season, we have a specific amount of electricity or energy that will be used in this part of the city.” But, by this lockdown, by this COVID situation, people spend more time at home, which means that they use more electricity, more energy, more water in the residence, not at the office space, or school, or the other buildings. The city operator needs to be ready for this kind of change in mobility pattern within the city. Just looking at the historical data doesn’t help, because last year at this time we didn’t have COVID.

Smedley:

Exactly. You guys are doing some things. Talk to me a little bit about what you’re doing.  You talk about collaborative intelligence infrastructure. Why collaborative? What does that mean? Because you just indicated we didn’t have COVID last year. Things change very dynamically, and a lot of cities don’t know what they’re going to do. There’s a lot of interesting… What are you doing right now? Talk to me about what you’re doing.

Arghandeh:

Exactly. From the technical and even philosophical point of view, the city itself is like a living organism. Every different part of the city, different layers are all connected. Electricity network, transportation network, telecommunication network, natural gas network. I don’t know, the social networks, the public health, supply chains. All of them, you name it, they are all about one aspect. That’s the living citizen, how the citizen live in a city. They all serve people who live in that city.

But, historically, the way we build our electricity network, or transportation network, or roadway, or water network, they didn’t communicate to each other. They didn’t consider each other and how they are interdependent. When we say collaborative, because we look at the city as a tangled fabric of built environments where we have, we’ve worked with all these networks all together as one system. The same way needs to be for controlling and operating the city, basically to characterize and pay attention to all these interdependency between different networks that we have in a city infrastructure. That’s the reason we call it collaborative.

Smedley:

If you look at it, collaborative, I totally agree with you. Because I think cities are, in my mind, whether you call it this, they’re like living organisms because they’re constantly moving. It’s constantly growing, it’s constantly changing, but we think that they’re not. COVID brought that to light because in an instant it can change. The pandemic has got us thinking about what’s next. That’s why I say the “new normal” is not right, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t say that’s going to be the way it is, because it’s not.

I think the interesting thing that you’re describing is we have to think about the logistics, the transportation, and it’s constantly evolving. I think the healthcare we talk about, and the way … We can’t use the word “live, work, play” anymore, because that changes. We have to think about our cultural way of thinking. We have to think about the inclusion of things. Everything in that society side of it that you just described is so dynamic.

I think the interesting part of that is, it’s the data behind it. That’s what you’re talking about. Do they understand? Do they have the right people to use artificial intelligence or Internet of Things to fully connect right now, to understand why you have to have the right people to interpret all this information? Is that what you’re doing to try to help them understand the power of this?

Arghandeh:

Yes. I want to add, we can have the right people or the people with the right skillset to work with the data, but something is beyond that. That’s, as you mentioned, the culture. The culture of sharing the data, the culture of listening to each other, the culture of communicating with the other entities in a city. Interdependence and interconnection between different parts of enterprise, from the electric, to transportation, to the city management, and so on, this is something that is very new. Still, we need to sit with, basically, city operator and city government to come up with a way that make the data flow more easily within their system. I would say the science, the technology is there, the regulation is not there yet.

Smedley:

Talk about the projects…

Arghandeh:

Of course. As a former resident of Florida, I experienced multiple hurricanes in my lifetime.

Smedley:

That’s why you’re gone. You’re not in Florida anymore. You’re in a different place.

Arghandeh:

Yeah. That’s one of the reasons. What is common between each hurricane or a storm is the blackout. The darkness. Basically, being out of power or water, and this, I would say, pain for the citizens. Then I was thinking about myself and also talking with other colleagues. Why? Why after each hurricane or each extreme weather event it takes us too long to bring things back to normal, or to restore the infrastructure. Then I started dig into this issue, and I found that interoperability is one of the issues.

Because, for example, if the linemen want to go to fix the powerline, they have to have access to those powerlines. Before that, basically the roadway authority, they should clear up the road so the powerline will be accessible for linemen to fix it. After linemen fix the power, they should make sure that the area is secure, is safe, so there are no dangers for the resident before they start to bring the power back to the neighborhood. The safety. Different people need to work together to just bring the electricity back. It’s not just about the electric grid, it is about transportation, it is about the city managers, it is about the security, the safety, the public health, and so on. That was the reason then we dive more into the science of the cities as a complex system, and how all these interdependence are important.

Then, after that, after our experience for the Hurricane Herman, Hurricane Michael, especially in Florida, in Tallahassee, we start to expand this form of thinking for city management into a normal day, not just for the hurricane and the black sky day. How, in blue sky day, we can come up with a more integrated way to manage and control cities.

Smedley:

Put all of that together, that project right there alone. When you think about that, when you think about a natural disaster…. We have different cities just here in the United States. Now you’re in Norway. When you think about what a natural disaster, and trying to get there, to get to people who are in need in scenarios, you have hurricanes, you have tornadoes, you have earthquakes, all of these different things that you’re talking about. Then cities are interdependent on each other to be able to get to people. Early warnings. How do you get cities to understand that … They all get that, but what exactly are we talking about in using technology? Is it just a communication? Is it a collaborative effort? Talk to me a little bit about the technology behind the science here that we’re talking about. What exactly makes this different from what other people are talking about?

Arghandeh:

Very good question. Based on our experience in our previous projects we had, we start to work in FSU. We start to work with our colleagues in the sociology and in, basically, the human science about what makes people to accept and adopt the technology. In this case, we are talking about, for example, a cellphone application that city uses for communicating by to citizens. If there is some problem, some outage, some roadway closure, some accident, this is ready, then. Citizens can inform the city about that problem so the city has some kind of situational awareness in realtime about the problems that happen.

The very first problem is that people don’t use that kind of mobile apps. Maybe they are not familiar with that, or they are not comfortable with that. They are more relying on some kind of traditional way like the radio, or maybe just look at the TV. I think we need to start look into more diverse technology for two-way communication between citizens and the city operators. This takes cellphone technology adoption in one of the cases.

We made study groups. We talk with different group of citizens in different age, and ask them, “What makes you happy of using a mobile app?” Or, “When it comes to the hurricane, what is the fastest way for you to get the information?” We got very, very diverse answers to these kind of question. This bring us to this point that it’s good for the city to start to think about establishing better two-way communication between themselves and their citizens. That’s a key in managing the city, and also in restoration and resilience after any type of disaster.

Smedley:

We have to have a whole group of storm chasers. The world of storm chasers. Every time something happens, everybody has to think it’s their own version of social media. Everybody has to post something and says, “Look, this happened. This is why this bridge is failing.” “This is why this road has a giant pothole,” or, “This event is happening.” You have to get everybody to want to help. The idea is improving. If this road is closed, this accident is happening, the more communication, the more insights, things happen, is what you’re trying to get them to do.

Because, as we have more resiliency, does this address solutions? This is where my mind is going with this. As we see smart city solutions address climate change and extreme weather events, that you’re saying all of this is going to address that, as things are happening at the moment they’re happening around the world, eventually? Is that what you’re looking at?

Arghandeh:

Yeah. Exactly. Because, I would say, there are a lot of data, a lot of information, a lot of activity by people on social media. But, we need to have some kind of collective activity. More focus for when it comes to a city. People need to maybe use same channel of communication, which make it easier for the city manager to collect the information. If somebody uses Facebook, the other one uses Twitter, or Instagram, or whatever, for the different ways, it will be hard to collect all those information when we need it at a short time.

Smedley:

That’s why we get them off that.

Arghandeh:

We need to establish some specific channels. Yeah.

Smedley:

Right. We get them off of … This is what I said a couple weeks ago on my show. We get them off of just posting junk, and post really valuable information on a channel that makes a difference. That’s going to save lives.

Arghandeh:

Exactly.

Smedley:

If people understand that and say, “Look, you’re contributing to the greater good, and your post might’ve just saved somebody’s life.” Because, ultimately, it won’t make predictions for things … You have enough data that you can actually interpret this to events that are going to happen in weather, and things like that. Isn’t that ultimately … Because you have data and you can compile all this data and actually see trends that are going to happen in the climate, or whatever.

Arghandeh:

Yes and no.

Smedley:

Okay.

Arghandeh:

Back to the first point, I want to say that, for example, when there is a problem, emergency, people call 911 because that’s dedicated to the emergency condition. Same way in the social media. I think we need to use some kind of dedicated channels to inform the network operator, the utility operator, the city operator.

Smedley:

Like FirstNet? AT&T has FirstNet. This is kind of what you’re doing with them, what they have for the healthcare space, for first responders.

Arghandeh:

Yeah, something like that. Also, the other issue we have, because you mentioned to the potential for this huge data we have … Actually, we are facing with an ocean of data, or even I can call it a universe of data, because the volume and the amount of data is out of mind, is huge. Analyzing and processing those data is not easy.

I think, as we go forward with a lot of these technologies, sensor, Internet of Things, cellphones, and so on, we should also be more selective in producing useful data, not just data. Because, that way, the analysis of the data, the analysis of the information, will be more easy and more feasible.

Smedley:

You have to make sure whoever is going to post it are going to be legitimate people. How do you manage that?

Arghandeh:

As an educator, as a teacher, I do believe in the value of education. I think everything can happen with a good education. We can teach our young people, or kids, how to use the social media, and in what way they can use the social media and produce the data. We can come up with some kind of schemes, or some kind of approach, or methods to produce the data. If I just want to talk about the smart city case and infrastructure that can help in better operating, and planning, and controlling the infrastructure, I think we need to do some kind of cultural aspects and some education component on using the social media, for using the data, and communicating with a network operator. That’s what I mean usually.

Smedley:

A special dialogue, right? A special dialogue so they understand how to communicate. That’s maybe what we’re saying here, too, because the way they communicate, every generation’s words are different. Their communication channels would be, the way they say things is different. That’s the thing.

Arghandeh:

Exactly. That’s what we call it. Citizen-centric city management, or citizen-centric smart cities. Because, really, citizen is at the center. They need to be part of this data collection, data processing, and decision making.

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