Eur Ing Stephen Apps CEng Pr.Eng MIET MSAIEE has deep technology experience as a chartered and professional engineer, along with ICT and management expertise, smart city expertise and implementation in sub-Saharan Africa. Steve is passionate about reducing inequality, combating climate change and increasing knowledge. He believes in providing unbiased consulting to enable cities and governments to succeed in the new online, intelligent world.
Tiffany Harnsongkram: Thank you so much for joining us today, Steve. I want to get started by asking about your former role as a dedicated smart city consultant. What is a smart city, and, from your experience, what are some of the main challenges in making our cities smarter?
Steve Apps: The concept of the smart city developed around 2010, when an idea emerged about how technology could be used to make life better, using sensors, AI and other technologies. Smart cities are an excellent idea, but there’s an element where they are a bit of a made-up buzzword, a bit like the smart grid was as well. My experience has taught me that before we can implement smart cities, there’s a baseline that has to be achieved about what data is needed and how to get it to make better decisions.
Realistically, we need to get data to where there is a lack of service delivery. We’re seeing with COVID an awful lot of problems emerging from a lack of service delivery, especially in terms of medical provisions, such as testing capacity. Before making smart cities there are more practical aspects to consider, like making sure medicine is where it needs to be, that electricity services are functioning, that you fill out forms for planning and get planning permission, with the correct invoices etc. These things can seem silly, but when you’re in a world where you don’t get any of these things, it starts becoming pretty important.
I tend to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It states that food and water are the most basic needs, but in reality electricity is fundamental for fulfilling these, for example, for distributing food. In many parts of the world there is no stable electricity supply and without that the smart city is not possible. So, it’s challenging because people are trying to build these brand-new satellite smart cities, but I haven’t seen any proof yet that it has been successful. Where they are trying to improve existing cities there are also challenges as cities don’t move and change like that.
“What we should be looking at as a baseline is what data and how to get the data to make better decisions. Realistically, where we have a lack of service delivery.”
– Steve Apps
What kind of solutions could technology provide to meet the hierarchy of needs and build better cities?
I think one of the more important things to look at – and it’s really important for the future – is the ability to make data accessible to citizens. Through this they can be more active in the community, including economically. They can create more revenue, which will benefit that location, potentially making it a desirable place to be and to visit. It’s important because everybody is fighting with each other to be the new Silicon Valley, so I tend to advise differently on how to approach it and suggest not necessarily trying to create a carbon copy.
As I mentioned before, in terms of service delivery, there are potentials for distributing medical supplies and treatment. There is a huge shortage of doctors in South Africa because most trained doctors go overseas to earn more money and they don’t go to the rural areas, where they are most needed. As a result, we’re forced to get doctors who have just graduated from university to spend a year in these places. The advent of smart technologies means we can now use artificial intelligence to provide video connections and doctors can treat patients from a distance. It is also possible to do things like X-rays remotely, which can be picked up by AI and there’s also the potential to do much better work with getting the right medications to the right places. I believe that you can use these technologies as services that can start providing decent medical care.
Clearly there’s some amazing potential for technology to bring about positive change, but there’s also some ethical issues and uncertainty, especially around a company like Huawei. What’s your experience there?
It’s interesting to me that everybody’s worrying about that tech, when Amazon can pull your data down and quote everything you’re saying through Alexa, yet with Huawei it’s all open source and open standard. It’s the only technology in the world, which has been analyzed right down to its code level by a special unit at GCHQ in England – there is no other company which gets taken apart and looked at so closely. You can get those reports and they’ll tell you everything. If there are ways to get the data, it’s because of incompetence or neglect rather than intent. Personally, I don’t think it’s that much of a threat.
In terms of the ethical issues around personal data and the power of tech companies, it comes back to service delivery again – tech companies rent services to us now, when before we would have bought them outright, for example, formerly we would have bought Microsoft Office, and now we rent Office 365 as a subscription. It is getting harder to do these things ourselves. It gives a lot of power to the companies offering the services, and a lot of access to our information, while they need an awful lot of power to make it function. When we’re working with this service model, there are various challenges around the ethics of the technology, the control of data and data ownership.
There are lots of questions around technology and ethics, especially as new smart technologies continue to develop. What do you see as the things that we need to be preparing for as business owners or as business leaders in the next five years in terms of technology?
Recently we have moved into unchartered territory where in a 2-3-month period, as a result of the COVID pandemic, we’ve jumped five years forward in terms of people’s acceptance of digital technology, through the use of Zoom, social media and other virtual forms of communication. It has moved forward much quicker than anybody expected, which means there’s going to be a mass scramble to build the infrastructure to be able to support, build and drive these changes. Due to what we’re seeing now, we’re going to shift a lot more towards the cloud, which will be too difficult for anybody to actually maintain on their own premises. There’s also the skills shortage, which is going to get severe. We have in most of the developed world an aging population, which will not be able to sustain this work and there’s not enough young people coming through to keep it going.
What can be done to prepare better for the future and plug the skills gap?
We’re going to have to see a lot more optimization and concentrating of skills around these technologies. I tend to look to the young and to innovation hubs, which I’ve recently started lecturing at. It’s time to see the young, get to know them and encourage them to come up with the ideas to take it forward because I think the young can handle the current technology better than anyone else.
“And I think it’s important with any organization, there must be a team. Nobody is any better than everybody else. Everybody’s as intelligent as everybody else, but differently, like relationships.”
– Steve Apps
Moving on now to another topic that you care a lot about, I’d like to talk more about neurodiversity. You have spoken about businesses not always knowing how to embrace it and how, in your own career journey, you have been held back by this. Can you tell us a little more about neurodiversity and how it has shaped your journey?
Neurodiversity applies to those who think differently, think alternatively, and see patterns where others might not. It is a term made up to say that there’s nothing wrong with people with autism or Asperger’s – they’re just the same but think differently. My own neurodiversity means that I think of several things at once constantly. And previously I thought that everybody thought that way. I realize now that I can see things that other people would consider to be complicated, things like patterns, scenarios or solutions to situations where there appears to be no answer. I can learn something that might take an expert several years to learn in a few hours. Before I thought everybody could do that as well. I’ve learned that we all have different abilities, for example, I was told once that I’m the worst person in the world at administration. I can’t project manage very well but after a month I’m distracted and want to do something else. This led to problems for me at earlier stages in my career, before I understood what was happening myself, for example, in the RAF, when I was accused of being lazy and bad at my job. In this instance, it was a case of not recognizing the situation and it was very difficult for me.
“You need to have those who think differently.”
– Steve Apps
How can businesses do a better job at working with different skill sets and make sure they’re not missing brilliant ideas from their employees?
In a corporate environment it can be difficult to measure a brilliant idea. I think it’s a case of workshopping and exploring ideas as a community; a brilliant idea from one perspective can seem the best, but everything has a downside, as nothing’s perfect. And sometimes you need somebody else to see the drawbacks or the unfeasible aspects of an idea. I think it’s important with any organization that there is a team and an understanding that nobody is any better than anybody else. I tend to see it that everybody is as intelligent as everybody else, but in possession of different skills, like handling relationships, handling projects, or doing the marketing etc. What matters most is the team that everyone is part of.
Thank you so much for your time and input, Steve!