How does one tackle the task of mapping the world in the digital age? Leen Balcaen, Head of Cities at Here Technologies and one of the speakers at this year’s me Convention, talks connected cities, sensors, and the city of the future.
Here is the global leader in location services. What are today’s challenges with developing digital maps?
Leen Balcaen: Cities are evolving constantly – roadworks, new buildings, detours – it’s likely you’re going to see a different city than what your digital map shows. Even software updates can only slightly minimize this difference. With Here, we are going towards a live map, updated in real-time. We want to stay up to par with the changes a city undergoes, in real-time.
The first digital maps were just digitized plans of existing structures. Could city development be influenced by digital maps in the near future?
Leen Balcaen: Nowadays, a map is able to also predict and project. If a construction site results in a road block, where does the traffic divert to and how congested will the bypass be? Where it gets really interesting is real-time data: take a football match. Tens of thousands of people travel to and back from the same location at a specific time. This has a huge impact on any city. It requires flexibility. Based on projected visitor flows and the stress of major transportation hubs, the public transport system can provide extra trains and busses before and after the game.
So, working together with cities is essential.
Leen Balcaen: Exactly – we have longstanding working relationships with cities and national governments across the globe. We allow public institutions to look at how the city is actually being used, resulting in a lot of very interesting conclusions. There is a huge delta between what the plan says and how the city is being used in reality. When you’re in a park and you see a diagonal footpath cutting across the lawn – it’s an example of city planning that is not in accordance with the needs of pedestrians. This is where Here can help cities to adapt the plan to reality.
Here CEO Edzard Overbeek has spoken about the vision to create operating systems for entire cities. Sounds very sci-fi.
Leen Balcaen: If you think about it, cities today are already implementing a lot of sensors. Actually, people walking around with their smartphones are basically crowdsourcing sensor technology. You could regard these sensors like nerve endings of a large system: air quality sensors, thermometers, traffic counters … Our aim is to give all this information a central hub. We combine everything, we standardize all the information and create one global, digital map.
Which things could soon become obsolete within the city as we know it?
Leen Balcaen: We are going to see a lot of gradual changes. Think about how autonomous driving is going to influence the city – will we still need traffic lights when all cars are connected and aware of each other? The costs of putting up, maintaining and monitoring traffic lights could be invested in more necessary things such as education or cycle paths. Parking is another issue. We are going to see increased use of carsharing services in the city. Do we still need regular parking lots in that case? Why not create parks in these spaces and add more green to the city instead?
Your job takes you all over the place. How are cities doing in terms of being connected?
Leen Balcaen: On a global scale, you clearly see differences between North America, Europe, and Asia. Every city has different requirements. One city that’s pioneering on a global scale is Copenhagen. They are implementing a lot of initiatives for their citizens, becoming more digital. Ideas range from connected identity cards to e-bikes or subscription models for mobility services.
Can you describe the future city you would like to live in?
Leen Balcaen: A city that sensibly works for me and allows me to be human. I frequently travel to our offices in Berkeley, near San Francisco. The trains there are filled with people looking down at their smartphones. People become very nervous if they happen to meet eyes with a stranger. Where has the human interaction gone? I want technology to make my life easier while not constantly demanding my attention, leaving me free to connect with humans again.