How Malta can have a free smart city

There is plenty of talk on the international scene about smart cities. They’re creating our future by basing city-planning on accurate and timely data. Malta, as a small island, is perfectly poised to take advantage of this research. But does it?

I

Anyone who works in technology will tell you nothing beats testing in a real-world environment. When I worked in software development, people used my apps in ways I never predicted whilst stooped over my laptop.

Malta is an excellent place to test cutting edge technology

There’s a simple reason for this. Any techie approaches a problem from the technology’s point of view. The questions these people ask themselves show this: How can I solve this? What technology do I need to get this done? What are my limitations? In a real-world situation, no one thinks like this. People have jobs to do and the technology is a tool to get that job done. It’s just a detail, rather than the point.

Whenever I hear techies saying, “But that’s not how to use it!” I shake my head. If it’s how a user wants to use it, then that is how to use it. If you had done any real-world testing, you’d know this.

Testing small pieces of technology is easy enough to do. Today’s systems are complex so proper testing involves more than 1 person playing around with your system. The driverless car industry is a perfect example. Robotic cars are sophisticated machines with different technologies that need individual and collective testing. Sonar, cameras, visual recognition, LIDAR, pattern recognition – the list of technologies is impressive. Testing them on a simple track is only good up to a point. Without testing on proper roads, with proper traffic conditions, the robots are useless.

Highly automated driving – Dr. Nico Kämpchen on a test drive (08/2011)

The lesson is clear – technology always needs testing. The English-speaking world develops most technology (Silicon Valley is the name everyone remembers). This means real-world testing happens in one of two places:

  • Close to home. It’s no surprise most startups experiment in San Francisco or the Bay Area.
  • In an English-speaking location. (Because if technologists are to understand feedback, language barriers aren’t a good idea.)

For these reasons, Malta is an excellent place to test cutting edge technology.

II

Malta prides itself on its tech scene. Many online gaming sites aren’t in Malta just for tax purposes. They know they can also find people who are as good as the best in any other country. Malta promotes itself as an English-speaking country as often as it can. This is one of our greatest assets. Being fluent in one of the world’s most used languages gives us benefits we can’t even begin to imagine.

We could be the cutting edge of technology. So why aren’t we?

It is strange there has been no attempt by the Maltese government to attract smart cities to Malta.

By smart cities, I mean simple technologies put together to have a city that can immediately react to changes. Rubbish bins that tell the council when they need emptying. More frequent buses if there are more people waiting at bus stops. Roadside trees that alert the right contractor when they need watering. Pollution monitors that close roads at different times of day to keep pollution levels down.

The possibilities are endless and we would enjoy these technologies.

We speak English.
We have smart technical people.
We need to counter-balance industries threatened by large-scale events like Brexit.
We are an island which can double up as a country or as a city, offering dual insights other locations can’t.
We could be the cutting edge of technology.

So why aren’t we?

III

I can imagine such a smart city put in place in, say, the heavily used area of St Julians and Paceville.

We need to counter-balance industries threatened by large-scale events like Brexit

Someone’s already done this. Toronto launched a request for proposal in 2017 to build this sort of thing. Google won the tender and is working on implementing this in Toronto’s 12-acre waterfront.

I would argue that European legislation makes Malta a more interesting site for a big tech company. In Europe, it’s not just about the technology, but also about stringent data-protection laws. Squaring that circle is something the big companies need to know how to do anyway. We also need to define a future where all that data collection isn’t harmful in the long run. As Helen Lewis writes in her Sunday Times column, this “might mean cleaner air and less noise, but the price of entry could be your soul.” Shouldn’t we be examining this question further and sooner?

The obvious next question is – why isn’t this part of Malta’s industrial strategy?

 IV

If we launched a similar initiative, we’d attract the attention of companies like Google to invest in Malta. We can offer incentives that are already in our laws like lower tax rates compared to other jurisdictions. We also could add conditions; ‘You must do some R&D in Malta’, or ‘You must buy a some tech from Maltese companies.’

All this falls apart if government ministers aren’t tech-savvy enough to appreciate change.

Large scale contracts at national or European level already include these sort of things, so it’s nothing new. They will ensure Malta develops a larger technical industry. One that could compete on an international level, or that would be able to sell goods and services across the globe.

That’s the ultimate prize – an industrial strategy with long-term downstream effects on Maltese industry.

Sounds good, right?

So I’ll ask again, why isn’t this part of Malta’s industrial strategy?

V

The Ministry of Economy, Investment and Small Businesses is the one responsible for this sort of thing. I tried searching on gov.mt but didn’t find anything. In 2014, the Council for Science and Technology produced a research and innovation strategy which makes it a tad dated.

I wrote to the Ministry to see if they could tell me about their industrial strategy. As of time of writing, haven’t heard anything from them.

I also wrote to Malta’s opposition party to see if there are any ideas from that side of the House which would be interesting. Again, as of time of writing, I’ve yet to hear from them.

We live in a world that changes every decade. The rate of change is increasing to the point where change happens at a faster rate than ever before.

Shouldn’t we fight to be at the front of the queue?

Don’t we deserve the best?

Please share this article with someone who thinks we deserve the best in Malta.

References

  1. When a Tech Giant Plays Waterfront Developer; Laura Bliss; City Lab; 2018-01-09
  2. Waterfront Toronto; Municipal web site; (Retrieved 2018-04-17) 
  3. Tech: no hiding in a smart city; Helen Lewis; The Sunday Times; 2017-12-03

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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