There are quite few cities in the EU Digital Cities Challenge initiative, which are either 5G test-beds or are involved on specific 5G-enabled application projects. Those are not large cities, but small and medium-sized ones such as L’Aquila in Italy, Patras in Greece, Sunderland in the UK and others.
At L’Aquila, as it appears in the other cities, the work done on digital transformation for the city has been strongly influenced by being a 5G test-bed city. And, after one year of work on designing a digital transformation strategy that takes into consideration 5G, it seems that the major challenges for making 5G a fundamental part of the city strategy are not technological. Instead, the key challenges are related to the social perception of technologies, public sector digital capabilities and the business system of the cities. Consequently, the 5G community needs to reflect on four main issues in relation to the development of 5G in cities.
5G is unknown to citizens
The knowledge about what 5G can do for the quality of life in the city and which benefits can bring for the city economy is very poor. 5G is then seen as a piece of science-fiction technology in the hands of few people able to understand it. That brings considerations on the investment in 5G such as “we could spend the money spent on 5G on real city problems such as improving urban mobility”, without knowing that one of the major 5G applications in the city is to improve urban mobility!
5G is seen as a threat
Because of the previous point, 5G is perceived as a way of wasting resources of the city and the citizens. The attitude towards 5G becomes then very negative or, at least, strongly sceptical. The view, then, that 5G is a mean for various threats to the citizens’ life just exacerbates the sentiment against the technology. There are two common threats associated to the development of 5G:
- Security threat. The pieces of news about links between Chinese 5G manufacturers and national cybersecurity threats are common in the media. The official positions of various governments on the matter validate that threat in the eyes of the citizens.
- Health threat. During 2018, various publications have raised the issue of electromagnetic radiation on wildlife and human health. On the 20th of December 2018, the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) of the European Commission highlights the potential risk on its Statement on emerging health and environmental issues (2018) claiming that “the expansion of broadband with shorter wavelength radiofrequency radiation highlights the concern that health and safety issues remain unknown.” (https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/scheer_s_002.pdf)
The role of the public sector in 5G in cities is not clear
Local authorities, particularly the ones running small-sized cities, do not have the resources and the experience to have a proactive role in 5G test-beds. They strongly rely on collaboration with other bodies, particularly universities. But, even with that, they struggle to design future policies around transformative technologies such as 5G. At the basis of that, there is the lack of a governance for digital policies that can guide the city along a digital transformation trajectory. The Digital Cities Challenge initiative is trying to encourage the creation of that governance.
The role of local SMEs in 5G test-beds is not strong
The consortia behind the 5G test-beds are made of important organisations – universities, mobile network operators, telco operators, software companies – To the city, they appear like giants able to look at the horizon, but with difficulties of looking down. And down, there are several local SMEs that could benefit of the magnificent work of the giant, but the giant struggles to engage them. Local SMEs are not sufficiently involved in the development of 5G in cities. The result is a frustrated local business system that needs to innovate and can do that grabbing the 5G test-bed opportunity, but that opportunity is too far to reach.
Let’s engage with those sentiments about 5G
To sum up, 5G is seen as a top-down idea brought to cities. It is an exogenous entity difficult to understand because no-one is really trying to explain it. At L’Aquila, and for sure in other cities, there are various ideas to change that perception. Various city stakeholders are working on three 5G-enabled applications to show case them to citizens and SMEs. There is also the intention of creating a “5G city lab” open to citizens and SMEs for understanding, playing and experimenting with 5G. The reason of those initiatives is to increase the level of knowledge about 5G in the community showing the potential of the technology and openly discuss the challenges that the technology can pose. Perhaps, those are small answers from a small city, but they are an invite to the entire technology community to engage with critical perceptions of 5G, perceptions that can affect the development of the technology.