September 08, 2017

Smart Cities: The Challenges, The Fragmentation, The Lessons Learned

The movement of the world’s population to urban centers, the competition of those cities with one another to attract business and investment, and the fact that devices and networks now make exciting new applications possible have all contributed to growing interest in so-called smart city efforts.

But what does it mean to be a smart city? How do smart city implementations get rolling? Where does the money come from? Who benefits? Is it better to start small or go big? And what have we learned from the work around smart cities that has happened so far?

These were all questions I posed to various IoT experts during my recent reporting on smart city deployments. But before we get into all that, let’s take a look at why we’re interested in smart cities in the first place.

Urbanization & Competition
Large cities are responsible for about three fourths of the gross domestic product globally. They are expected to generate 86 percent of the world’s GDP growth between 2015 and 2030.

But while there has been a large migration to urban centers, between 2015 and 2025 the population is actually expected to decline in 17 percent of large cities in developed regions.

Nonetheless, many cities are already grappling with traffic congestion, high pollution, and other challenges created by dense populations. At the same time, the global population is aging.

So there’s a recognition that these population centers need to get smarter about urban planning. And, many believe, leveraging connected technology is one tool they can use to improve efficiency and life, and attract business, to these cities.

“For most cities, economic prosperity increasingly will depend on rising productivity and incomes among their citizens,” write Jonathan Woetzel, Jaana Remes,Mekala Krishnan, and Kevin Coles of the McKinsey Global Institute. “The economic success of cities cannot be measured simply by their overall GDP growth – cities that are able to increase the per capita income and quality of life of their citizens can thrive even when population growth slows or declines. For many cities, this will mean shifting the focus from expansive growth to the well-being of their citizens. In an era of pressure on urban populations, this is the vital ingredient as cities compete with one another to retain and attract citizens.”

Money & Motivation
That shift may be vital, but government funding and/or a focus on technology apparently is not. At least according to the McKinsey authors.

To the first point, they note that a 4,500-acre city called Palava that’s under construction near Mumbai in India is being funded entirely with private money. Forecasts indicate half a million people will live in the new community, which real estate developer Lodha Group is creating, by 2025. The goal is for Palava to be ranked among the top 50 cities in the world by that time.

Rather than putting the focus on technology, the privately held real estate developer set out to reach that goal by gathering citizen input and focusing on how to make people’s lives easier. And that includes planning the city so the locations and services residents use regularly are within easy reach.

So a key part of the Palava smart city plan is to create an environment in which citizens can reach all the locations they visit daily by walking just 5 minutes. The places they visit every three to four days, meanwhile, are within a 10-minute walk. And things they use about once a week or month are just a 15- to 20-minute walk away.

“A smart city is not just about technology,” Abhishek Lodha told McKinsey. “This misinterpretation has often led cities to make investments that are doomed to fail.

“Cities can be governed using technology,” the Lodha Group managing director added, “but they have to be designed with vision.”

Fragmentation & Education
That vision is sometimes lacking in some so-called smart city deployments, which today often consist of one or a collection of different vendor-specific solutions as opposed to a cohesive strategy enabled by connected technology, notes KORE CEO Alex Brisbourne.

For example, he says, a city in Portugal has been working on an automated street light pilot project in which the lights are triggered based on the presence of people. “But it really was just a super science project,” says Brisbourne.

Smart city implementation, he adds, “is still massively in its infancy.”

That’s probably in large part because many cities rely upon suppliers to tell them what’s possible and available. So rather than cities looking for solutions to their specific problems, there are solutions looking for cities. And the cities that do elect to try the technology want to start small and via pilot projects.

“The problem has always been who got to the local government first, and what did they offer,” says Andy Mulholland, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

In a mature market, customers know what they want to buy, he adds, in an immature market like IoT they do not, and rely on suppliers for a lot of the information on what’s possible.

“That’s why it’s such a messy market,” Mulholland continues.“Because only now are people understanding what does and doesn't work.”

That said, it should be noted that relying on suppliers to tell you what’s possible may not as bad as it might sound. Some solution providers have done their homework about the pain points urban centers are experiencing, and have designed solutions to address those uses cases. Of course, that’s not always the case. And/or the suppliers of those solutions, and the government entities that implement them, don’t always consider everything that needs to be done to make them successful.

One thing that IoT implementations do require is having applications and processes that can leverage the data that sensor collect. But that is a significant challenge itself, not only from a technical standpoint, but give that governments are not very fast moving animals, so they are often not prepared to act on data quickly to gain maximum value.

“I have never seen any government that can do real-time decision making,” says Mulholland. “They never work that fast.”

Top Down & Bottom Up
Then there’s the question as to whether it makes more sense for cities to start with specific IoT efforts and build on from there, or whether to lay out overarching goals and initiatives so IoT efforts and investments are orchestrated across different government departments.

KORE’s Brisbourne says that there are a lot of top-down discussions about smart city implementation. But, he adds, most smart city implementations are actually bottom up.

The Nokia Smart City Playbook, which the company put together in collaboration with Machina Research, defines three smart city approaches as anchor, beta, and platform.

To date, says Jacques Vermeulen, director of smart cities for Nokia, cities have pursued more vertical approaches to their IoT implementations – addressing a specific pain point like parking congestion with an individual smart parking application. However, he adds, such solutions typically lack the ability to combine their data sets from data from other applications. And those single-focus solutions can be unsustainable in terms of cost and scale, he adds.

That’s why some cities, such as Calgary and Singapore, are now coming at IoT with a horizontal approach.That entailsdeploying new broadband network infrastructure to create the foundation for IoT deployments, he says.

Of course, putting a broadband network in place is very different than mapping out a smart city strategy and pulling together the pieces to enable smart city applications. That requires a whole lot more orchestration.

That’s why smart city initiatives are moving forward more quickly in areas with consolidated money and political power such as the United Arab Emirates and India, Vermeulen says. When asked what he considers the most success smart city deployments to date, he lists Barcelona, Spain; Bristol, U.K.; Singapore; and the UAE.

Barcelona, he says, is one of the first cities to have smart city implementations spanning different agencies. However, both Brisbourne and Vermeulen say that some of those applications are not linked to each other.

Vermeulen says Bristol has living lab throughout the city. That includes two to three autonomous cars on its highways, he adds.

We discussed Singapore above. And  in the UAE a government a gency is putting in place a drone management center. That enables the government to quickly identify whether drones are authorized to be in certain airspace, and if it’s not direct that drone back to its source.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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