Smart city or smarter city?

To be truly smart, Smart Cities need to take a more holistic and collaborative approach to implementing different M2M/IoT applications using open platforms rather than developing isolated smart services, argues Ben Peters, VP of Product Development, Neul

Smart city or smarter city?

The history of urban society is one defined by efforts to rationalise and create efficiency. For various reasons (budget, safety, control) the municipalities and other interested parties have created ways to introduce a sense of order to their spaces, resulting in the trend of what we can now call ‘Smart Cities’.

We at Neul see a simple evolution with lighting. To illuminate dark and dangerous streets we introduce streetlights. Beginning with the lamplighter and his long tapers, we now have a sophisticated system of networked sensors, reading light levels and controlling the street lighting accordingly.

Equally, as the lamplighter brought back news of, say, weather conditions or the state of repair of one of the lamp poles, our modern sensor networks can be used to report back environmental conditions and equipment status to a centralised resource.

Expanding that simple example to other metropolitan arenas we see that almost by definition, all cities are, in some way, ‘Smart’. The key evolution we are seeing at the moment is a shift from relying on manpower to automation. Wires and radio-waves are taking the place of footsteps; data-processing systems replacing orderly ledgers.

The real benefits of using the ICT and data management capabilities developed over the last few decades to automate manual processes on a city-wide scale are yet to be fully realised and understood. But it’s clear that making reporting and management systems both faster and less expensive through automation holds an exciting future.

Whose lines are they anyway?
According to a recent report, the analyst house IHS estimates there will be 88 ‘Smart Cities’ by 2025. The definition is given as ‘a city that has deployed communications technology to three or more different functional areas of a city’.

These include mobile and transport, energy and sustainability, physical infrastructure, governance, and safety and security. Whether 88 cities in a 12-year period is fewer or more than expected is outside – but runs concurrent to – the scope of this article. What is important, is how those cities are given a chance to come into being.

Who can make a decision to make a city ‘Smart’? Unlike a building or privately owned complex (to use the famous IBM Smart Campus project as an example) a city is made up of many different elements, all with an arguably equal right to make a decision. Monitoring water wastage through a sensor network is a clear example of a valuable use of a connected sensor network.

To implement it, agreement is needed from the utility company to monitor their product; from the council and the citizens to possibly dig up roads to install the hardware; plus agreement is needed on who controls the data collected and also, importantly, who will pay for the project. Coming together under a leadership team with decisionmaking power is key to establishing not only a project’s basic aims, but also getting it started.

Once a project has been decided on, the technology comes next. Again, wide and holistic collaboration is crucial to enabling technological decisions on standards and formats (communication language, network type etc.).

Encouraging moves are being made in standardisation and in creating a semantic web that will serve connected devices. Consortiums of private companies and other interested parties have been formed (HyperCat for example) and these are reducing the barriers to openness in a network of connected objects.

One of the roadblocks commonly cited by local governments to developing Smart Cities is the fact that developing the infrastructure to support such initiatives is costly and requires a large up-front investment. As noted with HyperCat, consortiums are key.

Vested parties with different goals must come together to deliver one aligned vision, communicating the tangible and intangible benefits to all so they can be understood and valued. This is where mobile network operators (MNOs) can be a boon to local government.

Partnering with MNOs presents an opportunity for local governments to create fruitful long-term partnerships, as they already own the infrastructure necessary to develop and roll out Smart City initiatives widely. Those MNOs have relationships, or are forming relationships, with Internet of Things (IoT) experts and machine-to-machine (M2M) infrastructure providers.

Previous examples of where such MNO partnerships have worked well include Weve, a consortium supported by O2, Vodafone and EE, which was started in 2013 to develop a retail mobile payments standard.

Such initiatives demonstrate a strength in numbers for the industry, showing how ostensible competitors can come together to provide a solution that supports the industry, enables better business, and ultimately benefits consumers. We can analogously look at MNOs’ partnerships with local governments to put in place Smart Cities.

Open wide
Continuing the spirit of openness, a Smart City implementation should be open enough to support future development and projects. Rather than creating single service networks, interested parties should be working with as many partners as practicable to create a holistic ecosystem.

Opening up a network to include other vendors and enable further vertical use cases to run on the existing network is vital to a real return on investment in budgetary and social terms.

The key is to see a Smart City as an ecosystem, with each project (lighting, parking, bins etc.) having the potential to feed into and improve the next. There is also the risk, if a system is not open enough, that it won’t be able to be integrated into a wider, possibly nationwide, Smart system.

A local water project is only so useful, but integrated into a nationwide monitoring project could help create a programme vastly greater than the sum of its parts.

There will, of course, be cases where certain technology is more suitable to the task than others based on location, type of data, volume and frequency. Through a collaborative process, however, compromises, workarounds and patches may be found to introduce previously unexplored uses to an existing network.

Boot up
We’ve witnessed Government intervention in building roads and driving forward broadband connectivity. What we now need is Government support to help build IoT applications. Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, has been championing this – he’s supporting Ofcom, providing policy guidance to support the IoT and Smart City initiatives.

Furthermore, David Cameron’s recent promise of support for a £45m investment in IoT infrastructure has shown that the Government realises the far reaching economic and societal benefits of the IoT.

Far from being inevitable, a ‘Smart City’ as defined by IHS is dependent on a number of complex and sometimes precarious relationships. Issues can arise from many quarters, whether that’s a technology vendor aggrieved it is not getting a big enough role in the project, short term thinking on the part of local government or simply lack of local backing among the citizens of an area.

Technology will continue to march forward and some degree of intelligence and automation is inevitable. ‘Smart’ comes about when this is no longer a single service programme, but when it can work with others to create mutual benefit.

Can we do it?
It may seem surprising given the benefits of creating a Smart City (resource allocation, more systematic workflows, effortless monitoring of a city’s vital signs) that there may only be 88 Smart Cities by 2025. However, given the complexities inherent in each project, perhaps it’s a realistic expectation.

Only by realising the depth of collaboration needed in a full Smart City project will we reap all the potential benefits. Cities exist because of the benefits a dense population brings to commerce and community.

Using those two elements, especially community, to inform our thinking about the ‘Smart City’ enables us to see beyond convenient parking or easy bin collections, to reaching public benefits that would have been impossible with human action as the only technology.

The author... Ben Peters is VP of Product Development at Neul, a UK company that develops and supplies M2M/IoT technology

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