Nitrous founder George Johnston catches up with thought leaders in the Smart City ecosystem on a TechRadar piece.
The smart city is where the Internet of Things and big data crash into each other. Myriad devices fitted with sensors gathering data are instantly cross-referenced on a citywide scale to increase efficiency and create new services.
The streetlights that only switch on when there's someone in the vicinity, the train station that automatically opens more ticket barriers and even re-routes trains at busy times, or the home thermostat that warms up a house when it detects that the owner has left work and is travelling home, taking into account real-time traffic conditions.
That's all very smart, but is the very concept of the smart city simply technological progress with a cute name?
What makes a city smart?
The smart city is not about sensors. It's about data, and what you do with it. "Many of the things happening in today's smart cities could more honestly be labelled as progress," says David Socha, Utilities Practice Leader at Teradata, name-checking both smart homes and smart parking. "What will make a city actually become smart is the integration and analysis of data from otherwise potentially disparate initiatives."
If the goal is genuinely integrated public, private and personal transport systems, and saving energy in homes, offices and vehicles, then the smart city needs three things – structured data, big data, and machine-to-machine data. Structured data is weather forecasts, demographics and public transport performance statistics.
"Slightly more fun is big data from all sorts of social media," says Socha. "This can be valuable for sentiment analysis, tailoring services and offers, all sorts of business-to-customer or perhaps city-to-customer relationships," he says.
Thirdly comes M2M – machine-to-machine, also known as the Internet of Things – and this is where it gets tricky.
Is a smart city just sensors on infrastructure?
Absolutely not. A smart bin with a sensor that alerts someone when it's full isn't smart at all. "Trash might get emptied more often, but costs will go through the roof," says Socha. "Trucks could end up coming back to the same street to empty smart bins close to each other that just happened to send in their 'I'm full!' message eight hours apart."
The smart bins need to talk to each other, and integrate with structured data in the form of maps and route optimisation software, thus emptying bins becomes both a quicker and cheaper process. The council can then get rid of a truck, perhaps, and put more bins where they're needed.
"Take the fashionable, the fun and the boring data, analyse the data in its entirety to reveal the relationships, dependencies and connections, and take informed, positive actions based on the new information available," says Socha. "Now that is smart." Like the Internet of Things that it's inseparable from, the smart city is about one thing – saving money, but only in the long-term.
What role could Bluetooth beacons play?
For a city to be truly smart, there needs to be an infrastructure designed to create hyper-location and automated services. Cue Bluetooth beacons, the hardware behind the 'physical connected web'. We're on the cusp; coming Bluetooth 4.2 compatibility will enable mesh networking and IPv6 connectivity.
"Having a mesh of beacons across a city, all on a private network, to collect and send data back to a centralised hub, could be a lower cost solution than traditional smart city technologies," says Mike Crooks, Head of Innovation at Mubaloo Innovation Lab, referring to the various types of radio frequency standards currently being proposed for IoT devices.
"The use of Bluetooth as a control mechanism could also mean that it's possible to remotely control different equipment, further improving efficiencies … ultimately, IoT and the smart city won't rely on a single technology, but will be a collection of multiple technologies, including cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other networking technologies."
Do governments need to get involved in smart cities?
The devices, the sensors and the software will come from private companies innovating, but smart cities need infrastructure – and that needs planning. "Governments and city councils must play a leading role in crowdsourcing innovative ideas from IT suppliers, app developers, citizens and their constituents," says Ben Morris, project manager at NTT DATA, which has just helped deliver a two-year intelligent transport system for Exeter Council and Devon County Council with Imtech, Vaisala, Black Swan and the University of Exeter, to reduce traffic congestion.
"As cities across the UK expand and thrive, local government and councils must be ready to capture and analyse the data collected," says Morris. "Once combined with open source data like weather and GPS, patterns can be identified and smart solutions can be implemented … if the UK wants to boast some of Europe's smartest cities, government support will be critical."
The need for regulation
Government-sponsored pilot projects are helpful, too, as in Copenhagen where the Loop City Initiative connects local councils for the collective launch of new technology such as intelligent street sensors.
"These pilot projects can help smart city startups test their products, prove traction, and gain further funding," says George Johnston, co-founder of IncuBus London, who also thinks government regulation is paramount.
How about the autonomous car that forgets to apply the brakes? No thanks. Or the knock-off hover-board that explodes? "Considering that's a smart mobility solution in its own right, responsibility lies with non-profit organisations like government to ensure safe production," says Johnston.
Some systems will be too important for private industry to manage. Johnston adds: "Governments should also provide the backbone IoT infrastructure, independent of public networks, similar to the current traffic light systems."
How does the workplace fit in?
If integrated transport is largely about making rush-hour work better in cities, the working hours of people once they get to the office are just as precious a resource for the smart city.
"Time is a valuable resource that should be maximised efficiently using new technologies," says Johnston. "AI and big data can streamline and even replace human effort where needed, creating these efficiencies."
The quantified self is also coming to the office. "As well as efficiencies, smart city tech also delivers better experiences for workers," adds Johnston. "Capturing key data on employees can provide unique insights to form the environment around them," he adds, suggesting that the screen brightness of a computer could adapt to the cycle of day and night to reduce eye strain.
Meanwhile, Bluetooth beacons enable valuable 'where's my colleague?' apps. There'll be no hiding in Starbucks downstairs anymore.
Do we need smart cities?
We need to use technology to make cities more efficient. Why? Because cities are growing massively. By 2050, over seven billion people will live in urban areas. "Fundamentally, a smart city uses IT to enhance the quality of life for its occupants, and can manifest itself in a number of ways, whether that be energy management, traffic and transport management, or government services," says Morris.
The smart city is independent of the Internet of Things, and it needs to be nurtured and planned – including by governments – if it's not to become a corporate free-for-all of walled gardens and unreliable, incompatible devices. No city will become smart by accident.