Digital infrastructureSmart CitiesWill 2019 be the year of the smart city at last?

Will 2019 be the year of the smart city at last?

Despite all the promises, we are still many years away from a UK smart city, reports Gary Flood – though intriguing local initiatives do suggest possible ways forward.

According to a recent report by IHS Technology, there will be at least 88 smart cities all over the world by 2025, up from 21 in 2013. And while the majority of these are likely to be located in Asia, Europe is expected to be home to over 30, including Vienna and Amsterdam. Numbers like this really does seem like the smart city has finally arrived.

The reasons you’re probably familiar with by now: smart cities are the best way to make urban environments habitable, affordable and more efficient via harnessing various advanced data and analytics technologies to help the people who run them know what’s going on at a micro-level.

When asked to provide their favourite example of a smart city as a reason why we’d want one, most commentators point to Singapore’s government-backed “Smart Nation” project, where city fathers have built a 3D virtual ‘twin’ of their physical city that connects to sensors in the real world, providing real-time modelling and increased visibility into risks such as potential floods, power allocation and vehicle congestion, enabling planners to take immediate action and prevent escalation, it’s claimed.

Other smart city fans point to various other local initiatives like this, like Chennai using AI to try and deal with traffic congestion issues, while Dubai says it will be a fully smart city by 2021. Here in the UK, the government has put £1.7bn aside to help spur the creation of local smart transport projects as part of its Transforming Cities initiative, among other programmes to support smart city rollout.

Many rivers to cross

So, it’s all plain sailing ahead for smart cities and 2019 will be the year of the smart city at last, right? Well, not quite. For a start, despite years of propaganda from the tech sector, analysts and governments at both central and local levels, the public is either indifferent or mildly hostile to the idea when it’s explained to them. For example, almost 70% of the UK public do not know what a smart city is or the benefits it can bring, according to a November report from traffic managers ATG Access, with over a quarter (26%) of respondents claiming they find the prospect of smart cities “worrying” and 24% expressing scepticism around the benefits.

There is then the issue of how to actually hook up these projected areas and make the connectivity reliable enough to do these things. The Internet of Things (IoT) is often pushed as the assumed topology for doing this, supplemented by high-bandwidth, low-latency 5G networks; some even suggest non-standard database technologies like graph should be used, as it is the ‘best’ way to handle the literally millions, potentially billions, of small items that smart cities would need to run on (sensors at the parking and water meter level pushing data back to a central control). The slight problem is that no-one has created an IoT network across a city yet, and 5G is still not something you can buy from anyone yet.

Other smart city challenges we don’t really know the answers to yet include the very basics, like how to power these dense urban areas: sure, there’s a lot of interest in renewables and innovative energy storage, but there’s a lot of hard work to go here, as Richard Molloy, Manager UK Energy Storage at power management specialist Eaton notes: “While clean energy technologies are evolving, much more flexibility will be necessary for these energy sources to provide the reliability we require. This includes investing in interconnected systems, having ample control over when and how we use energy, and most importantly, safe, reliable and efficient energy storage.”

Then there is who ‘owns’ the smart city: is it the private sector tech, property, transport and utility companies that have put the work in, or the local authority that owns the infrastructure and represents the democratic interests of the residents? It clearly has to be a mix of both, but it’s not really all that clear yet, as Chris Evans, deputy managing director at engineering consultancy Rolton Group, notes: “The smart city is a concept that requires collaboration between both the public and private sectors and its citizens in order to allow for the promised transformation and growth. A strong and reliable digital infrastructure will be critical in driving the uptake of connected and autonomous vehicles, for example, particularly for local authorities and transport operators for whom the sharing of data is fundamental to understanding passengers needs and requirements of their services.”

“The key is a successful partnership between public and private sector that has a commercial focus, as well as the social uplift and quality of life for city citizens goals,” agrees Nick Sacke, Head of IoT and Products at data and IoT specialist Comms365. “Projects will need to be set up from the beginning to offer valuable and actionable insights quickly to a wide range of stakeholders including private sector companies to ensure that projects remain investable and they do not prematurely stall, as has happened with several [previous] smart city initiatives.”

Act local — then get smart?

Given how much needs to still be fleshed out to make smart cities more than a great idea and a cool set of PowerPoint slides, what’s most likely with smart cities — in the UK at least — is that instead of pouring huge amounts of money into the idea like Singapore or Dubai are willing to do, us Brits will start with smaller projects that have more direct uses that these grand visions.

Take the recent decision by the main supplier of London’s iconic signage and bus shelters, Trueform, which is working with smart cities telecoms company Maximus Networks on a 2019 £150m rollout of a network of so-say “interactive street-side hubs”. The idea: reimagining public call boxes for 21st century needs, fully funded by private investment and supported by advertising, with the hubs installed with free Wi-Fi, phone calls, way-finding and device charging, but which also work at street level on basic smart city applications like pollution, traffic monitoring and weather data capture.

Another example of a ‘bottom-up’ way of building smart cities was pointed out to us by Emanuele Angelidis, CEO of IoT investor Breed Reply: the popular app AppyParking, for instance, which enables drivers to identify the nearest and cheapest on-street and off-street parking but which also provides digital street management for local authorities, along with enabling last metre navigation for autonomous cars. “Such technologies are helping create smart cities, as urban planners can potentially use data to change road networks and move street furniture to make travel more efficient,” he is convinced.

Another backer of this view — we might call it the ‘we’re doing smart cities already, only not calling it that’ is James Wickes, CEO and co-founder of cloud-based visual data specialist Cloudview, who points out that Transport for London (TfL) already makes more than 80 real time data feeds available to developers who use these to produce apps which provide routing and other services: “More than 600 apps use this open data, and the policy is boosting London’s economy to the tune of £130m a year, while the service that third parties provide help people get around London faster and more easily, [exemplifying] the principle of opening up access to encourage new services.”

We may even want to start at just the individual building level, too, as Martin Woolley, EMEA developer relations manager with wireless tech group the Bluetooth SIG, suggests: “Buildings will continue to become smarter in 2019, becoming intelligent, self-optimising environments that have the potential to save money, consume less energy and create a better environment for the people that use them. It’s a relatively new idea to network smart buildings in this way to gain analytical insight and a degree of control and self-optimisation across public buildings: however, it’s one that mesh networking in smart buildings will help make possible in the future.”

Remembering why we’re doing this

Starting small is also essentially what the Government is doing too, with Exports minister Rona Fairhead going so far as to suggest in a March 2018 speech that if you want to see a UK version of a smart environment, go to Salford, as, “Manchester’s MediaCityUK is, as I would call it, a 40-acre sandbox, testing in miniature what the smart cities of the future might look like.”

Forty smart acres would be a good start, but it’s not anything like what a central Birmingham or downtown Newcastle would need. For all the hype, smart cities remain an idea and a vision more than a practical reality, and a lot of work still needs to be done to realise their potential.

To do that, we may need to go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves why we’re doing all this in the first place. For Dr Jacqui Taylor, founder and CEO of public sector cloud services firm FlyingBinary, the reason smart cities haven’t really happened yet is that — yet again — we have become too focused on the shiny new technology and not what they are supposed to do: help citizens.

“The digital approach has resulted in technology being the outcome rather than the enabler,” she warns. “Internationally, smart cities are focusing on the changes required in cities to accommodate a rising and ageing population.

“But unless a city’s smart city strategy is focused beyond the need to make efficiency savings, replacing technical debt with digital technology will not improve outcomes — and cities will not become smarter.”

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