Laying smart foundations
Written by: Richard Martin | Published:

Smart cities may be the future, but that doesn't mean that they will appear without a great deal of thought and no small amount of hard work. Richard Martin looks at their potential benefits and the obstacles still in their way

Smart city projects that typically look to use the Internet of Things, ubiquitous sensors using Low Powered Wide Area (LPWA) technologies, and big data, among other technologies, can be found in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Exeter and Manchester. They are working to improve the lives of citizens and the efficiency of businesses and public services, with support from the Future Cities Catapult.

Smart cities also have the potential to improve citizens’ safety – through combining public and private data with the IoT, it is possible to get first-responders to the right place faster by finding clear routes, and detect serious incidents rather than waiting for them to be called in (gunshot detectors are being installed in some US cities); and with predictive analytics, it is possible to get assets in the best position even before events happen.

In the UK, we have already seen how the use of cameras linked to the Police National Computer system detects road-tax violations and tracks down suspect vehicles. Links to a wider range of information sources such as smart buildings could increase the effectiveness and safety of both fire and police operations. In the long term, there is no doubt that smart cities will be big business. Consultancy Frost & Sullivan estimates that the total market for smart city solutions will be $1.5 trillion in 2020, with smart energy predicted to be the fastest-growing market segment, with a CAGR of nearly 20 per cent.

The company predicts that in 2025 there will be 26 smart cities, which it defines as cities having active projects in five or more of the following areas: smart infrastructure, smart governance, smart energy, smart transportation, smart buildings, smart security, and smart healthcare. More than half will be in Europe and North America.

IHS Markit has also analysed the smart city market, and estimates that device shipments will rise from 202 million in 2017 to 1.4 billion by 2026. It sees considerable fragmentation in the smart city environment with multiple applications, wireless platforms, equipment suppliers and standards. Projects come in many sizes and scope, and suppliers range from start-ups to major telecoms vendors such as Arqiva and Vodafone, and IT majors such as Hitachi and NEC. It expects those projects that take a long-term view of return and address the fundamental issues facing society will be the most successful. Also, by leveraging adjacent sectors, such as advertising or major network deployments, smart cities will be able to tap into other revenue streams.

However, many challenges remain, which were discussed at a recent CW (Cambridge Wireless) event, ‘Answering the scale-up challenge for smart cities’, hosted by Digital Greenwich.

One of the most pressing issues, the need for efficient procurement, was taken up by Paul Copping, CIO of Digital Greenwich. Individual municipalities such as Greenwich face a challenge in being able to offer potential suppliers sufficiently large projects that will spread development costs. Even comparatively large UK cities will face this issue. Copping believes this problem can be solved through the development of a procurement platform that can be widely used. This would include an agreed overall architecture covering a software-defined network, data warehouse, city analytics, application interfaces, and services.

Copping proposes the formation of a business owned by a consortium of local governments that acts as a prime contractor for integrated smart city projects. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for these, and so the company must adopt a flexible approach for each deployment, selecting delivery partners based on the applicability of their solutions and local knowledge. There will be scope for SMEs to participate, particularly in terms of applications, cyber security, analytics and local programme management. This procurement framework will be able to develop multi-use specifications and terms and conditions, and a repeatable cost framework, while still being flexible enough to cope with the needs of different projects. The procurement company will self-fund from each project.

Digital Greenwich is taking this concept to the EU, with a Prior Information Notice to be issued through the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) this summer, and a bidders’ conference to raise visibility. It will also feature at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona in November.

Ali Nicholl of Iotic Labs noted there are many IoT platforms, potentially creating silos of data that would impede smart city development. What is needed is a “web of platforms” where data can be shared easily; for example, a road transport system sharing data with the city metro, or even refuse services. This raises issues of data ownership and protection, but if profiles of shared data can be agreed, then links can be set that adhere to boundaries. Owners of these large databases and IoT networks can also determine whether some data can be made available to SMEs that are developing local solutions.

Nicholl also talked about the diverse range of wireless and wired data transport technologies. He said this is a benefit as each bearer has its own advantages and drawbacks, enabling planners to choose the technology that best suits their needs.

Nigel Chadwick from Stream Technologies agrees that the diversity of wireless solutions for the IoT and smart cities is a good thing, noting that 2G and 3G solutions are getting strong competition from technologies such as Sigfox, LoRa and NB-IoT, with battery life and cost being key drivers. However, 4G/LTE will have a place for higher-bandwidth applications.

Winners and losers
Nicholl believes there may be a shake-out, with some losers, but that will take some time to happen. He said there is a need for creative thinking in the design of solutions, and for a far greater level of citizen involvement. He also sees the possibility that SMEs could work with community groups to provide localised information on recreation, transport or events, tapping into a wider range of sources of information from city or regional sensors and databases, and making the smart city a more local asset driven by citizens.

Chadwick believes public safety has still to make any significant moves to use the IoT, even though video from static cameras is widely used. But with the trend to connect a wide range of domestic, industrial and public devices to the internet, “everything becomes a sensor”. The possibilities for public safety agencies to use a much richer range of information sources in regular and emergency situations require an innovative mindset.

Nicholl talked about how data could be shared in a secure manner. Commercial and city agencies could decide on several layers of access; for example, a retail organisation would give free access to non-critical information on a regular basis. More sensitive information could be available to public agencies in the event of specified emergencies. This would mean that data can remain with the most appropriate owner, who can then maintain it to a high degree of accuracy.

John Davies of CW said more work needs to be done on interoperability and standards to accelerate the smart city drive, noting that the numerous stakeholders involved makes this more difficult. However, he noted that “lighthouse” projects have shown what can be achieved; for example, the managed motorway programme in the UK, where the hard shoulder can be made available to increase traffic capacity. He also highlighted the global need to move towards smart cities to provide city-dwellers with a better (and more sustainable) quality of life.

Iain Jawad from Frost & Sullivan identified four types of business models for developing smart cities: ‘Build Own Operate’, ‘Build Operate Transfer’, ‘Open Business’ and ‘Build Operate Manage’. The best option hinges on a city’s aspirations and financial situation and to what extent it needs a well-financed partner to whom it is willing to relinquish control.

Dr Mike Short from Telefónica O2 talked about how data from mobile networks can be used to help design effective smart cities. With 25 million mobile customers in the UK, there are plenty of opportunities for developing an understanding of crowd behaviour, but this must be done recognising ethical and legal limits on the use of individuals’ information.

That said, there is scope to analyse the mobile population in terms of its demographics, locations, affluence, travel, interests, media usage and hobbies. Six billion events are logged by O2’s network every day, and the company has four years’ worth of data. Transportation, media and retail providers can use this to make better decisions, while public safety agencies can use it to develop profiles of public movements and behaviour to plan major events, responses to emergencies, and optimum use of resources during regular or emergency operations.

There is work to do, but it is reassuring that some serious thought is being given to the biggest obstacles facing smart cities as they start to move from demonstration projects to serious deployments aimed at generating significant benefits for citizens, businesses and public safety organisations.

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