Smart cities: a long and winding road
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

Smart city applications are being deployed in UK cities and there are clear areas of excellence. However, despite the availability of technology, many projects are still at the trial stage or relatively small in scale.

Smart city is a very broad term, but essentially it is a city that deploys information and communication technology to increase operational efficiency, maximise resources and improve the quality of life of its citizens.

As readers of Land Mobile will know, the concept has huge potential for society, but how well is the UK actually progressing in this field?

Nick Sacke, head of IoT solutions at IoT network infrastructure and solutions provider Comms365, says there are pockets of brilliance in the UK, such as London’s Digital Twins programme, or Bristol’s Smart Streets project. “There are some very valuable programmes going on, but they do not seem to be coordinated or joined up. There is a heavy siloing effect even within cities.”

Sam Jordan, lead in smart cities practice at end-to-end IoT technology specialist Connexin, agrees that the UK is taking “a very siloed approach”. He believes that in the early days, some local authorities got burned pursuing smart city projects that failed to deliver much value.

“There are some very valuable programmes going on, but they do not seem to be co-ordinated or joined up”

“I think that has made the development of smart cities a bit slower, as councils are being much more cautious.” His colleague, Ben Pocock, marketing lead for Connexin IoT, adds: “A lot of local authorities go into smart cities thinking it’s mainly about investing in technology. But in fact the technology is just an enabler to help them operate more efficiently, provide more for citizens and create better communities.”

Cost-effective, easily scalable

Pocock believes that in the past, adopting too wide an approach to smart cities, without having clear outcomes in mind, has not helped boost confidence.

“That is why many of the more successful smart city projects in the UK have probably started from smaller projects. They get one siloed part of the council to do a project, using the technology and being really clear about the desired outcomes. Then you get buy-in and you use that approach to scale up from there.”

There is a fair degree of agreement about what needs to be in place to enable a smart city. Cost-effective, easily scalable connectivity networks lead the list. “You cannot have a smart city without connectivity,” asserts Jordan. “You also need platforms, something that will aggregate your legacy systems and all the new ones you are introducing.”

“The people who will be using this data and applying it will not be technical people,” says Pocock. “They do not want to have to wade through spreadsheets and do all the modelling themselves. They need to be able to easily access the data, understand the trends, and get notifications if there are spikes or correlations between different datasets.”

Connexin has developed a platform for Sunderland City Council that is designed to replicate common digital consumer experiences such as Google Maps or the Facebook UI.

“With smart cities, you have to focus on adoption to take it through to success. The only way you will get it adopted is if you make it simple, relatable and usable,” says Jordan. Sacke adds that fast, high-capacity fibre networks are also essential to support wired solutions and wireless applications, in particular for 5G small-cell backhaul.

The 20-year partnership between BAI and Sunderland City Council aims to create a neutral host 5G network along the River Wear (credit: Flickr/Robin Taylor)

“Edge processing is also very important because a lot of data will be captured and it will have to be sifted at the edge, as only certain parts of it need to go back to the cloud.” It is also vital to get proper buy-in within councils, from elected members right down to the operational team, says Jordan.

“If you say to someone at an operational level, we can give you granular insight on a street-by-street level of the challenges, they will go, thank you, that means I can target where I need to go immediately. If you are an elected member and you say, I can tell you what the street-by-street level challenges are in your city or ward, they will bite your hand off as well.”

Sacke argues that it is important to have some kind of job role within the organisation that has the authority to move across silos. “You’ll probably get the pilot done in one council department, but the great challenge is making sure that the technology scales across multiple use-cases at once,” he observes.

Citizen engagement

The other key factor is engaging citizens. “We need to assure them this is not a ‘Big Brother’ collection of data,” says Pocock. “We have to give them practical ways they can use that data, whether that is the use of transportation or sharing information with them from a social point of view about risks.”

One of the first applications to be deployed is often smart lighting, because as Sacke points out, energy consumption is one of any municipality’s major costs.

Smart waste management is another, although Jordan says this is more successful in the commercial space, as there is still suspicion among citizens about having their bins monitored. Smart parking is another wellestablished application, with apps providing real-time information on available spaces. The tech is being extended to electronic vehicle charging.

Comms365 is involved in projects using IoT sensors to register when the charging session has started, so the authority knows if someone is illegally using the bay just for parking. Environmental monitoring, particularly air quality, is another key application.

Sacke says: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell parents from an app which way to go to school today, as opposed to walking through a more polluted route?” Another application rising up the agenda is flood monitoring. “The reality is that as we build more houses, the pressure will be to build on cheaper land, which is often on flood plains,” says Jordan.

Monitoring culverts, water levels and soil saturation helps provide an early warning system. Smart healthcare and assisted living is also being pursued by the NHS and local authorities to continuously monitor people with chronic conditions, or the elderly and infirm in real or near-real time. By receiving early warnings of problems from the home, interventions can be made at an earlier stage before becoming potentially critical.

Virgin Media O2 Business has switched on the UK’s first 5G-connected hospital having announced it has built a private network at Bethlem Royal Hospital in south London.

This helps keep people out of hospital in the first place and gets them home faster, saving precious healthcare resources. Collaborating with utilities can be a fruitful strategy for local authorities. “We are starting to see utilities and LAs working together,” says Pocock. “We are working with Severn Trent Water to deploy IoT networks across the West Midlands, and working with LAs to put in infrastructure and expand the use-cases from that. Adopting shared infrastructure is an interesting approach.”

Given that connectivity networks are essential, what kind of radio technologies are UK cities deploying? “LoRaWAN is way ahead of NB-IoT,” observes Sacke. “It is definitely very popular with local government, although people are testing NB-IoT and doing some deployments. We have it and aggregate it together with Cat-M and LoRaWAN, as we need to be able to provide all those technology types along with 4G and 5G.”

Connexin is certainly betting on LoRaWAN, as it is building one of the first national LoRaWAN networks anywhere in the world. “LoRaWAN is a cost-effective, low-power solution, which can be adopted in all sorts of different verticals and specific use-cases inside and outside buildings, in a field or deployed across a city,” says Jordan. “You do not necessarily have the challenges you see with traditional mobile networks, plus you have greater reliability than a Wi-Fi network.”

In Jordan’s view, the cellular players in the UK are not providing the coverage and penetration smart cities require as yet, so adoption of NB-IoT and LTE-M is lagging behind. Sacke says Comms365 is intrigued by the relatively new ETSI Mioty standard.

“Mioty is heavily focused on the industrial side. It is being touted as a souped-up LoRaWAN.” He adds that Wi-Fi6 and short-range technologies like Bluetooth are also in use. “But I think it is about not relying on one system,” he continues.

“You need a blend of wireless and wired systems that is orchestrated cleverly to take the load for certain use-cases and applications, and that will include edge computing. That kind of blended model needs to be captured and put about as best practice.” Pocock argues that having national infrastructure widely available will lower the barriers to adopt smart city projects, as “it increases awareness, innovation and makes it easier ultimately to adopt smart city technologies and use-cases”.

Partnerships are key too, says Jordan. “The triple helix development model of a local authority, an academic centre and a private business, all bringing their bit to the party, really acts as an enabler to innovate because you have brains, technology, resources and reach.”

There is clearly plenty going on in the smart city space, albeit largely in isolated pockets. But UK cities have some way to go before they can be described as truly intelligent spaces where information from multiple sources can be harnessed to enable better and more joined-up smart services and decision-making.

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