Charbel Aoun

“Cities will have to transform”

Until last July, Charbel Aoun was the leader of Schneider Electric’s strategy on smart cities*. With a remarkable career so far, and a CV featuring names like Cisco and Accenture, Aoun is also a renowned thinker on the topic of smart cities. To the expert, opening up the debate is the first step.



Two years ago, at the Smart City World Congress in Barcelona, you said in order for a city to become a smart city, there needs to be a vision. Do you still stand by that statement?

Absolutely. Cities have evolved to a point that those who want to embark on the journey have evolved their vision. It is not something the supplier can do on behalf of the city. The vision has to come from within; it reflects the community, the society, their aspiration, their problems, and their needs. The suppliers or the industry can help by sharing what they have done around the world, by facilitating the conversation.


Have we evolved?

Yes, we are more realistic. At the beginning we focused a lot on 'why' and 'what', and now when we start looking at the 'how', we start being realistic because we don't want to do everything one way. It’s step by step, it's an evolution. So we have evolved in a good sense.


Have governments also kept up with this evolution?

Yes, cities have evolved. I’ll use an example I like a lot: 5 years ago when the UK embarked on the journey of future cities, they ran a competition, and in this competition they have invited any city in the country to take part and propose ideas, and they gave an award of money, a large sum of money, and one city won. To me, living in this country and being part of this debate, I realised the value was not the award. What the 50 cities that engaged in this exercise have done by talking about the opportunity of winning helped them look into their business and think, and create, and come to the conclusion that they have to do this anyway. To me, creating that debate is important. I think governments have done it too, because the topic is now more understandable, more realistic, as I said. Every city is having an internal conversation.


Apart from a vision, what does a city need to be smart?

We looked at the characteristics of the 250 cities we work with and said “those who manage to make progress, what do they have in common?”. We came up with five key success factors. One is leadership, which is very important, and from the leadership we realise that they managed to create an engaged community. The second part is they focused on creating the foundation, which is the infrastructure. It needs to have the basic infrastructure. From that they move on to creating integration as needed, from the bottom-up, user case-driven and collaboratively  – this is number 4 – they engage the ecosystem, they engage NGOs, academia and large corporations, but also small and medium enterprises, the local community. And lastly, they are not afraid to innovate.


Technology also arouses some concerns, such as issues surrounding privacy and security. How can we stay safe?

Let's use the analogy of on-line banking. Some years ago, the way we used to do banking was by going to the bank branch and get in a queue and do a transaction. With online banking we were having the same debate we are having now [surrounding the use of technology in cities] and it took us years to put in place mechanisms to make it safe. It is about technology, but it is also about the process.


What do you mean by that?

By finding an authority that can oversee and say 'that is safe or that is not safe, you need to do better'. It took us a few years to get there, the same as with on-line shopping. Remember in the early days we were afraid to put our card...? Now we don't think about it. We are facing the same situation here. Inside today's world and the smart city context that is an absolutely valid concern.


And how can it be overcome?

In the midst of that, there are two kinds of data. With data from devices on the street, there is no privacy issue. Let's start with the easy part and then let's continue to talk and debate and experiment with the other part to find a way. At the end of the day, the industry will not have the answer on its own...it could just as well be the people choosing to take part in it or refusing to take part in it, but we cannot say 'there is a privacy issue, let's forget about it'. Let’s engage and let’s work together on finding a mechanism where we create that balance between the two.


Is there a solution in sight?

On the privacy issue of course we have to retain privacy and I think there is some debate in the industry about data as a utility. Ok, if you don’t want your identity to be revealed or you don’t trust any supplier, fine, but there is someone that can be trusted that is a body, an NGO, a non-profit…we have precedents in the industry.


Do we run the risk of becoming totally dependent on technology?

I don’t want to say ‘yes there is a risk’. We should not design something that is purely workable with technology. What of if technology fails? Technology gives you options, and for business continuity you will always have a fallback option, a plan B, a plan C or a plan D. We can always design technology in a way that we rely on it, and then when it doesn’t work we have an alternative. We are not saying to build a building without stairs, with only an elevator. Let’s say there are ways of creating value from technology in a usable way, in a sensible way. I’m not painting a picture of a “holy robotic world”, that is not what we are advocating. Use technology at a level the city feels like it is adding value. Don’t go beyond that, because it is not about technology. We are not doing it for the sake of showcasing technology. Technology has to solve a problem. So the question comes ‘if the technology solves a problem, do you use it or not?’ - to what extent is up to the user.


How do you see the smart cities field changing over the next few years?

The Internet of Things will definitely grow in cities, because we have devices everywhere. We need to make sense out of it. It is going to be by managing services via the cloud, I believe, in some form of subscription or cost sharing or revenue sharing or something of that fold. The world of apps in cities will have to evolve. Once you create a data store, which is a place where all this data coming from the devices is available and open to start-ups, universities, etc., it’s going to become a new market, a new world. I believe cities will have to transform and look at things differently. I don’t know if it is going to happen in the next 2 or 3 years, your guess is as good as mine.


* This interview was conduted on April 2015, at the time Charbel Aoun was still responsible for Schneider Electric's smart cities business.



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