Microsoft’s Cherkis: Europe on equal footing with Asia, US on ‘smart cities’

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Despite the massive funding available for the development of smart cities in China, and the leading role that the US is playing in hi-tech city infrastructure, Europe remains a key player in the development of interconnected urban spaces, according to Microsoft’s Joel Cherkis.

Joel Cherkis is the general manager for government worldwide public sector with Microsoft, and a leader of the company’s recently launched CityNext initiative, seeking to assist governments, citizens and  businesses to transform their cities.

One problem people have with smart cities is that it is not always easy to identify a unifying theme which connects the different technological elements that the term embraces. Does Microsoft’s new CityNext initiative have such a unifying theme?

We have a reference model and a document we are about to publish which explains what some of the common goals are and how to get to those goals. I say that because each city is different, the goal of each city is different and cities want to see what other cities are trying to do so they can establish what their baselines and long-term perspectives would be. We see a different set of maturities: there are some cities just emerging and just now getting to the stage where they can share information, others are much more advanced, and are already looking at the role of mobility, public workers and so on.

A couple of common things: most cities want open government and they want to use open data to get there. It’s not that complex technically, typically the complexity is political, what is allowed within the confines of the law and policy. That is one key area where all cities are interested. A lot of times cities want to be more transparent.

The other common strand is cities using their existing systems behind the scenes using open data: so you will find that the transportation department and public safety will have their own sets of data, often with different locations. What cities are finding is that the economics of the cloud means that there is enough detailed information from a cross-recovery and policy perspective, enabling the systems to work together. I say that because public safety has confidential types of information – names of fireman and so on – and so they can work with other systems – like health systems – with similar privacy considerations. These will typically be through private cloud or private accredited systems.

What sort of competition do you have in your work for smart cities infrastructure?

IBM and CISCO, you’ll start to see Amazon appearing more as a public cloud services provider, but also other companies such as Oracle and HP, Logica, Capgemini and Accenture. I am not sure they are competitors at this stage, we all have different roles, and in some cases – like IBM – we partner up really well. But we will see more collaboration than traditional competitive models in this market.

Is it unusual from a US perspective to see how much Europe looks to policy as a driver for innovation?

I would not say it's alien. It is noticeable, and part of it is to do with the structure of the EU; 250 years ago the US was probably similar, but there are central federal funding models in the US too so there are similarities. I think in the EU there is more focus on policy and then innovation, but in the US it is more the other way round: innovation precedes the conversation of how innovation conforms  to policy. And the reason is because we are more law-driven than policy-driven. For example the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is an authorisation board, it lays down the requirements of government, so long as you can comply with those then you sometimes with innovation you have that “Wild West” feel. Like when the Obama administration came in in 2009 and within 24 hours the government said it would be transparent and participatory and collaborative, which provides free rein for the innovatory space, and which led to the hackathon model and the open government partnership. We tend to be more willing to try innovation and then look at the policy, whereas I think the perception in the US is that in the EU it’s more policy driven up front.

China seems to be spending around €140 billion on smart cities, and the US is also spending large quantities. Given that such sums dwarf European investment, does that indicate Europe’s relative insignificance in the market?

No I do not think so by any means. I see Europe on an equal footing with any other region. The number of cities in Europe is phenomenal, and there is a depth of understanding of how cities work due to the longevity of the cities, a lot is to be learned from Europe’s cities. There is no one city that everyone looks to in Europe’s smart cities: some are great at transport, smart building, energy efficiency and so on, but all are learning from each other. The dollar amounts [available for smart cities] in China are mind blowing and it’s hard to believe until you see some of these cities. Some of these cities have emerged with six million people out of no-where, and there is big opportunity there. But I don’t think anyone is looking only there. There will I think be a point in the future where the spending trends trail off.

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