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Smart cities: Focus on networks and governance first, devices and apps second

In the race to become "smart," many cities are reaching for the bright, shiny (IoT) objects. Instead, they should plan the infrastructure required for implementing truly innovative services and systems.

Conversations about smart cities often focus on technology components, as if the "smart city" is a layer that could be superimposed neatly over an existing physical city.

That layer analogy is appealing to software architects and engineers, because it suggests a rationally organized stack of interrelated and interoperable technologies. But even the most carefully planned and ruthlessly efficient cities aren’t technology stacks. Cities are complex agglomerations of streets, office buildings, hospitals, schools, parks, transportation systems, utilities, and people.

There are also multiple participants and influencers in the smart cities movement: real estate developers, investors, universities, telecoms, utilities, automakers, transportation providers, citizens, and political parties. Not to mention the hundreds of government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels.

Established IT vendors are already battling for shares of the smart city technology market, which is expected to be worth more than $1.2 trillion by 2022. However, progress does not rely solely on commercial vendors; smart cities are also being moved forward by thoughtful city planners, social scientists, and community groups.

“Smart cities are not about hardware. They are about making citizens and governments smarter,” says Michael Batty, an urban planner, geographer, and professor in The Bartlett at University College London. Batty is chairman of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, where his research focuses on computer models of city systems.

Andres Sevtsuk, assistant professor of urban planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and director of City Form Lab, cautions against “smart cities rhetoric" that overpromises on potential benefits while minimizing likely difficulties. Most smart city products and services are essentially modest solutions aimed at generating incremental gains, such as increasing the capacity of a municipal bus system, expediting the work of repair crews, or reducing the time it takes to obtain a city permit. Those are helpful, incremental improvements, but it’s not the same as a comprehensive and serious vision for what a city of the future might look or feel like.

Think globally, act…you know

On the other hand, nothing is stopping cities from adopting or supporting grassroots technologies that might eventually become key parts of their infrastructure. One example of grassroots smart city tech is SeeClickFix, a service that routes complaints from citizens about potholes and broken street lights to city officials. Launched in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2008, SeeClickFix has expanded to more than 25,000 towns and 8,000 communities in the U.S. and internationally.

Jennifer Sanders is executive director and co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA), a public-private partnership dedicated to the design and execution of a smart cities plan for Dallas. From her perspective, the first step in smart city planning is identifying specific challenges; then urban planners figure out which combinations of infrastructure, technologies, and data are necessary to overcome those challenges.

Don’t allow the technology itself to become a distraction. “A robust smart city combines data, technology, and traditional community initiatives,” Sanders says. “Technology can be a catalyst, but the ultimate goal is helping people to live better lives.”

Light up the pieces in place

Fortunately, many cities and suburbs already have most of the technology and infrastructure required for smart city connectivity. With a bit of tweaking, existing infrastructure can be leveraged to support a wide range of smart city applications.

For example, every city and town already has some kind of public lighting system. Cities that switch from traditional incandescent street lights to solid-state LED products can substantially reduce their energy costs. Moreover, LED fixtures can be upgraded to include sensors for detecting fire, smoke, pollution, temperature, humidity, noise, and motion.

The city lights themselves would effectively become nodes in an IoT network, generating data and potentially useful information about weather, traffic, public safety, and air quality. They might even be able to help you find a parking space.

How does the city of LA keep construction booming and protect itself against service disruptions?

“Street lighting equipped with cameras and presence detectors will generate data that can be shared with smartphone apps, guiding drivers to open parking spots,” says Stephen Rouatt, head of strategy and market intelligence at Philips Lighting in Amsterdam. “Light fixtures with embedded environmental sensors can provide hyper-accurate identification of streets with excessive automobile pollution and redirect traffic away from those areas. People with respiratory ailments would also benefit from such data, since they would know which streets to avoid when walking or bicycling.”

Rouatt also sees street lighting playing an important role in public safety and security. “Embedded cameras and acoustic monitors can identify incidents such as overcrowding at a stadium, car accidents, or fights in the parking lot,” he says. The color and intensity of the lights could be adjusted to highlight safe exit routes or assist emergency responders.

Connect the dots—and the devices

Connectivity won’t be an insurmountable problem for most smart city services, but issues will invariably arise. For instance, real-time communications systems require more power and more bandwidth than do arrays of passive sensors for detecting fires or air pollution.

Plus, when it comes to networks, one size doesn’t fit all. Smart cities probably need a mix of technologies and applications to cover connectivity needs, including traditional cellular (2G, 3G, and 4G LTE) and low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs), such as Sigfox, LoRaWAN, and Ingenu.

Transportation will undoubtedly pose problems and offer opportunities for smart cities. “The success of a smart city will heavily depend on how well the city’s transportation system is connected, automated, and shared. So it is extremely important that these technologies are adopted by both public and private transportation agencies,” says Sharon (Xuan) Di, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics at Columbia University and a committee member of the Center for Smart Cities at the university’s Data Science Institute. “Data science is already playing an important role in revolutionizing how people move in a city.”

Augmented reality expands the boundaries

Expect the smart cities movement to encompass newer technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). For example, Sweden plans to build 700,000 new rental apartments to cope with a serious housing shortage. It also plans to upgrade the heating systems in more than 1 million units built during the 1960s.

One Reality, a company that develops VR technology for smart cities, plans to provide VR/AR demos at the headquarters of the Swedish Association of Public Housing Companies (SABO) in Stockholm, where city officials, public housing agency planners, and renters can view design options. Planners and renters will use VR headsets to “walk through” apartments, request design changes, and buy 3D furniture from Swedish makers, says Sheridan Tatsuno, an urban planner and One Reality co-founder. He envisions VR and AR tech playing key roles in smart city development.

VR and AR can be used for the entire planning process, from ideation, rough concepts, planning, and design to construction and monitoring. My team starts with real cities, scans them in using satellite and drone data to display the existing city in VR, adds new buildings and infrastructure using VR, compares the existing VR structures with the new AR structure as it is being built, then ends up with the future city,” says Tatsuno. “Currently, Lund [Sweden] is using our platform to design housing for 15,000 scientists who will work at the new MAX IV and ESS synchrotrons nearby.”

Clearly, the smart city movement has survived the early stages of the hype cycle and is now heading into a period of increasing maturity. That’s good news, because more than half of us live in cities. By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will be city dwellers, and there will be more than 40 mega-cities with populations of at least 10 million people, according to the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report.

Directly or indirectly, we all have a stake in the smart cities movement. Achieving a proper balance between smart city technology and human needs is essential for our survival as a social species. And for finding a parking spot.

Smart cities: Lessons for leaders

  • Don't get stuck on the hardware, however exciting it might be. The success of smart cities depends on solving citizens' problems.
  • Some of the infrastructure may already be in place. The clever solutions come from integration of the pieces.
  • Grassroots efforts can make a difference here, in part because people invest in solving problems they personally encounter.

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