19th December 2016
Connected cities: success stories and challenges
Cars aren’t the only things becoming increasingly connected. Rapid progress in Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) is helping smart or ‘connected’ cities to develop, too. Far from a sci-fi pipe dream, these cities are a reality very much here already and not just in the developing world.
What is a smart/connected city?
Based around a trio of hard, intelligent physical and modern digital infrastructures, smart cities are primarily aimed at making life including public services more efficient, cost-effective and user-friendly, whilst making environments cleaner and more sustainable, all through data, automation, transactional relationships and service-user feedback1.
“The concept of a smart city is somewhat amorphous, but it’s focussed on…technological innovation”, remarks Brooks Rainwater of the National League of Cities. Or, in the words of Jesse Berst from the Smart Cities Council2, “It’s just using digital technology to improve community life”. Essentially, the vision is for cities to save money and energy whilst better connecting with their citizens.
Technology, in particular the Internet of Things, is helping make certain cities’ traditional networks and services more efficient, with smarter public transport, more fluid road networks, upgraded water supply and waste management services, more efficient street and building lighting, and improved healthcare services, along with safer and cleaner environments and on-demand services for all generations including the digital and aging populations3.
Meeting citizens’ needs
Just like a person, each city has its own characteristics, such as its citizens, landscape, location, existing infrastructure and its size, so hence faces a specific set of challenges. Collaboration and transparency are essential in successfully developing a smart city, as growth and innovation would otherwise be stunted if companies kept technologies to themselves.
Helsinki4 is a great example of a connected city with the right approach, its eagerness to integrate smart technology meaning it has created a foundation from which agile innovation can blossom. Standardised Open APIs are provided by an EU-funded initiative called bIoTope, which enables companies to innovate and develop connected smart objects on Systems-of-Systems (SoS) platforms. Ecosystems require governance roadmaps in order to grow in a sustainable way, which is another facet bIoTope makes possible, and Helsinki is also commendable in the way its public big data is stored in a structured format that can be freely accessed by anyone via an open license, this data not only helping local government but also private companies and citizens. With the testing of driverless shuttle buses already well established there, the Finnish capital also boasts an interoperable electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and is even home to startups including one that tackles food waste by using the IoT. Sensors inside food packaging detect gas build-up so that, in the retail context, shelf prices are automatically reduced, and in the domestic context, consumers are notified.
Across the pond
Over in the United States, many cities have begun turning connected. In New York5 (voted Best Smart City 2016 at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona), sensors are boosting public safety and 10,000 old-fashioned payphones are being converted into structures providing gigabit internet to residents and super-fast Wi-Fi to others. In the city of Columbus6 in Ohio, universal fare cards are accepted on public transport and by taxis and car-sharing services and double-up as medical appointment cards, helping reduce the city’s disproportionately high infant mortality rate.
India is a hotbed for smart city development and in November following a trip there Theresa May returned to announce that the strategic partnership between India and the UK would be strengthened, with smart cities highlighted as a key area7. Germany has also pledged additional support to India, with some of its investment specifically channelled into smart cities8. One example is the city of Jaipur, which doesn’t have a geometric layout and where narrow roads pose major traffic management issues9. Its citizens were polled and cited mobility, tourism and sustained wages as their priorities. Companies including Cisco and Bloomberg are working with Jaipur Smart City Limited to unite the city’s three levels of government under one umbrella, collecting data to identify travel and infrastructure improvements, with another ultimate goal to be the adoption of renewable energy sources.
Public sentiment can influence smart city projects, one example being the cunning plan for U.S. Postal Service mail and parcel delivery vehicles to act as smart city eyes and ears, sensors installed in these ubiquitous mobile assets continuously monitoring environmental and road conditions, even as far as potholes. The idea is for the data to be streamed back to City Halls so that authorities can enhance life for residents, whilst it would also serve as an additional revenue stream for debt-blighted USPS. Stakeholders working on the project are unsure whether public sentiment will derail or retard its implementation, though. Another issue is that USPS databases are closed, whereas a key criterion of smart cities is open availability of data to relevant parties. Regulatory bodies may also decide to slow or halt the project, too, if they deem that a postal provider shouldn’t be endowed with such additional powers10.
With loads of data flying around, cyber security is also a challenge being addressed by connected city developers and visionaries. For example, despite San Diego11 having 24 networks, 40,000 endpoints and multiple large-scale IoT deployments carried out methodically to ISO standards from LED street lights and a smart electrical grid to dustbin wagon GPS and intelligent libraries, the city now attracts at least a million cyberattacks every day.
The sheer fact that not all homes and buildings are served by suitably fast internet connections is also a hurdle, meaning that co-op models may have to fill any gaps in private investment12. Likewise, it’s still unclear how autonomous vehicles will interact with public transportation and connected buildings in smart cities of the near future. The capabilities facilitated by technology are only half the story and social science will play a significant role in ensuring that smart cities evolve successfully for the sake of mobility and jobs. Enormous amounts of data being generated and transmitted is impressive but requires effective storage and interpretation along with adroit human decisions to ensure the end results are relevant and benefit people on the ground.
Based in Manchester city centre, Trak Labs is a focal point for the R&D and innovation activities undertaken by Trak Global Group. Its aim is to reinforce the Group’s position as a thought-leader in the use of connected technologies and big data which, in the company’s primary market – automotive – is aimed at helping to manage driver risk. Part of our Manchester workspace is reserved for collaborative working, with our doors open to any developer, entrepreneur or data scientist that wants to explore new opportunities in insurtech, geotech and the IoT.
Trak Global blog, December 2016
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