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How to build a smart city that will last

One-off smart city projects are rarely designed for the long haul. To build a city that will grow and support its citizens for decades to come, you must identify what really matters and create an architectural framework that supports that vision.

Imagine this scene, 20 years from now: You wake up, open your window, and look out over your city. I can guess that it’s a fantastic place. Note that I said “fantastic,” not “smart.”

From my own future-vision window of 2038, I see Rome. Its bi-millennial history is reflected in every stone. But this future Rome is also a city that works fluidly around me. I live a modern life while being immersed in Rome’s awesome grandeur. I have easy access to services and information. I do not distinguish between what is smart and what isn’t, because it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the city and its services provide what I need, when and where I need it.

I expect the projects we think of as “smart” today to turn into something else. Instead of calling out a collection of "smart" features, the city itself will seamlessly evolve in a fluid experience continuously adjusting around me and everyone else. By my expectations, these features will enable cities to better accomplish their mission to provide infrastructure, and to enable business and personal relationships. They should be unnoticeable, an obvious part of what you see around you, the way we take electricity for granted today. 

What smart really means

Current and future smart projects cannot be isolated from their surrounding environments. Smart parking, for example, isn’t a matter of just counting inbound and outbound cars and helping you to find a free lot.  Real smart parking is aware that you are entering or exiting. It interacts with an intelligent traffic system to reduce queues. It informs the restaurant that you are arriving to claim your booked table. It drives your autonomous car to the closest free lot. It charges your credit card and sends the information to your car system for your convenience. It also provides real-time information to improve operations and security in the area.

Moreover, every smart project is unique, depending on the uniqueness of each and every city. The local aspirations, needs, and priorities combine with specific legacy infrastructure and services, organizations, and regulations, defining a unique meaning for a smart project for a specific city and community. Nowadays, a smart city can be a concept (such as Singapore, based on the clear goal of sustainability and livability) or an ambition (like Dubai's aim to be the happiest city in the world). It can also be a way to solve specific problems, or an improvement in the efficiency and experience of public services.

There are plenty of opportunities, and more will be enabled by emerging technologies such as 5G, blockchain, and artificial intelligence. Around these technologies is a vibrant, multidimensional ecosystem embracing traditional players, technology providers, and innovators, with potentially infinite combinations to solve each unique city problem.

Technologies are the core enabler for such transformations, but they are not enough to make something “smart.” It is not difficult to gain additional insights about a service by gathering more digital information from a sea of sensors, or to open up relationships with citizens by providing digital access to the public services. Rather, the "smart" label should be assigned only when technology enables a foundational change, such as dramatically reducing water or power losses, transforming an insecure area into a public garden for families, or improving accessibility to people with disabilities. With a proper vision, a city can become more efficient and sustainable, and citizens' daily experiences will improve.

Are you ready for the IoT?  Here’s a framework that will get you started.

Why smart projects fail or fade away

We all can think of examples of technology uses that once impressed us but turned into dust. In the same way, how many smart city projects are likely to survive until 2038? In city terms, I've watched a number of projects disappear, including traffic monitoring systems that collected data that didn’t make a difference, a CCTV security network that didn’t increase a venue’s security, and a public Wi-Fi system that was eventually abandoned. (I’d love to hear about your own experiences.)

When projects are designed to address a point problem, well, it isn’t wrong, but implementation usually takes one or two years or even more. Then the solution lasts a year or two before the technology becomes obsolete or a city’s evolving need turns investments elsewhere. And that's with regard only to technology features. Expect at least four generations of technologies between now and that 20-year point, and 10 or more if Moore’s law is applicable. Other factors working against urban planners are changes in city population, economics, and demography. Regulations also evolve as a result.

A city’s infrastructure, services, topology, and population, on the other hand, can last and evolve over a decade or more, which means the innovation we introduce should last as long. 

Think in terms of city services and how they can change as the city does. For example, consider what a smart garden might look like. You can scatter around Wi-Fi access points and implement a good mobile app today. Or alternatively, you can envision a step-by-step evolution over several years to transform the garden experience into one that you can live in, making it more immersive, personal, and relevant.

Take that a step further and consider something more personal: your house. A house has many similarities to a city. It is designed to reflect you and the experience you want to live. It’s sustainable, but it continuously evolves. It’s intimate, and reflects your dreams, aspirations, and needs. A house is alive. Pieces of furniture come and go, parts are broken and replaced, families grow and shrink. You change, and you expect your house to change with you. However, if you don’t pay attention to how your house is evolving, you will face a mess and be disappointed. 

Now, scale that to the city level and project it over the next 20 years.

You can take steps to ensure that your house matches your vision. Engage an architect who can translate your ideas into a project, considering all of the components and constraints and looking at the outcome, even going beyond your initial ideas (or do it yourself). You might also weigh the advantages of doing minor updates in the short term versus a complete renovation that might have a better outcome. Why not do that at the city level?

Houses and city modernization must also consider specific constraints, including history, city planning, and architecture. You may need to consider elements of industrial archaeology—for example, in Rome, your decisions may be forced by the presence of the Coliseum. City designers have to work around that. Or you may have the full freedom of changing virtually everything, as in the living SimCity of Dubai. A multidisciplinary approach led by the city’s administration has to navigate those kinds of issues. 

Smart city success factors

There are three key success factors that recur in successful smart city projects.

First, create your specific strategy. No city in the world is the same, so despite having similar definitions (smart traffic, smart lightning, smart water, etc.), no smart project or service will be identical. When you scratch the surface, you see different goals, constraints, processes, technologies. So define the frame; it will likely stay consistent for a decade or two as changes are limited by a city’s momentum.

Second, you need the right components. Shortcuts, including fancy or cheap solutions, do not work in the mid term. However, open standards do work, as any city infrastructure has demonstrated in recent decades. Technology matters, therefore be smart and protect your investments by leveraging the evolution of standards rather than potentially ephemeral proprietary capabilities.

Third, what makes a city smart, or fantastic, is the perceived outcome. A customer of mine summarized this concept: “A city is smart if it helps you.” Components or technology changes do not make a city smarter. And no one can deliver a full city outcome working on its own.

What made your 2038 view so fantastic?

Go back to your window to the future and look at your fantastic city in 2038 again: You can now capture what made it so great. You recognize a clear evolution of patterns that systematically changed all parties toward a common design. The local community flourished by leveraging the development opportunities provided by the modernized infrastructures and services. Pervasive efficiency is evident. You live in a fantastic place, not just a smart one.

Smart cities: Lessons for leaders

  •    Identify what really matters for your city in the next 2, 5, 10, 20, 30 years.
  •    Understand the unique frame of your city and what its future should be.
  •    Capture short-term wins that are aligned with and functional to mid- and long-term evolution.
  •    Engage the right ecosystem of partners to solve a city problem or enhance a city service.
  •    Strategically adopt open standard technologies coherently, with a clear architectural frame.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.