The smart city might be a hot idea but it’s a nebulous one. That’s because it’s still evolving, writes Bill Bennett. It’s also as much about citizen needs as technology and network smarts

Every city has a nervous system of some description. In smart cities that nervous system is digital. It can be put to use making services work better, managing key assets and making people safer, and improving their quality of life. 

Building a smart city is not a single project, it is developed over time through a series of small or incremental changes. Some of the changes are invisible to the public. Yet, they all add up quickly. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, especially as the components start to interact with each other. 

The key is data. In a smart city you are never more than a metre or so away from moving data. It travels at the speed of light through fibre networks under people’s feet, or over wireless connections. Most of the time, it uses the same digital nervous system that powers industry, enables telecommunications networks and delivers online entertainment.

Data generated by a smart city is at its most powerful when it can report immediately on vital infrastructure, then be used to draw conclusions and feed back what it has learnt into control systems. This can all take place with or without human intervention. Whether people are in the loop or not, you still have the makings of a smart city. 

Soon, smart city data will do even more. The fibre networks will reach further and will be complemented by wireless technologies. Systems will become more intelligent and cities will become smarter as a result. As you read this, administrators and private industry around the world are investing in the information and communications systems that control the functioning of everything from a city’s water supply to traffic signals, to crowd control. Sensors can collect and transmit vast amounts of data on everything from pollution levels to traffic flows at key choke points; or anything else that can be usefully measured and acted upon. 

All this collected information fills vast databases; these are often stored in the cloud. In some cases, they are open databases, allowing citizens to access or even contribute information about the state of their city. Citizens, non-council organisations and private enterprises can use open data for their own decision-making. Software can then use the data to manage issues, often in real time. This doesn’t all have to be run by councils or government bodies. 

Public transport phone apps and websites telling you when the next bus or train will arrive are obvious familiar examples of how smart city data can be used. The same information can be relayed to people through electronic displays at bus stops and railway stations. Likewise, billboard-sized road signs or phone apps can tell drivers which car parks still have free spaces. 

Smart city applications can be as simple as

knowing when to turn street lights on. They can also alert engineering crews about trouble spots, issue public health warnings, or re-route traffic flows. In some cases, they can predict what will happen in advance and act to lessen the blow from a potential problem. So, when essential city infrastructure equipment breaks down or, say, a weather forecast suggests a road should be closed, systems can automatically kick into action without human intervention. 

At the simple end of the scale, Palmerston North Council ran a project using mobile apps and real-time data visualisation to track fly tippers. The technology allowed residents to report incidents, and work crews were then dispatched to clear the rubbish. The council could draw maps to locate the hot spots, and, in a number of cases, collected the data needed to prosecute fly-tippers. 

Applications can be much more sophisticated

“The smart city has shifted from an off-the-shelf bundle of technological solutions to a more integrated approach to governing cities... however what makes the city 'smart' is using these technologies in a user-friendly and democratic way”

Dr Jenny McArthur, Research Associate, University College London

than this, however. In Singapore, a phone app lets citizens book seats on one of the city’s privately run bus services. The buses serve remote parts of the city not reached by public transport. 

The software collects ride requests, then dispatches a bus to pick up the passengers and take them to their destinations. Software not only automatically guides the bus around traffic choke points, but also determines the optimal route, depending on where passengers want to go. Later, the stored data from these bus requests is analysed to predict demand patterns and learn where new regular transport services may be needed. 

In 2016, the US State of Ohio took a different smart city approach to transport by installing technology along a 35-mile (56kms) stretch of highway. The state worked with Honda to build what it calls ‘The Smart Mobility Corridor’. The road is equipped with both fibre cable and embedded wireless sensors. These feed back real-time data so that road monitoring staff working in a central office have frequent reports on traffic conditions, weather updates, news of accidents and information on the road’s surface conditions. 

As well as making the road smart, the Ohio team fitted government vehicles with hardware, so they can send and receive data while on the move. The trial has proved successful and the US government is now planning to test similar technology on an interstate highway linking Chicago, Detroit and New York.

Although the term smart city has been around for a decade or so, it’s precise meaning is not always entirely clear. There are no completely smart cities, and these days only a few could be described as dumb. 

In part, the idea of a smart city means using sensors and other digital technologies to collect data and make better decisions, but technological descriptions only scratch the surface. 

Huawei's chief technology officer of industry solutions, enterprise business group, Joe So, is the company’s smart cities’ champion. He says while there are a lot of smart city components, for now there is no single platform. He says this means the idea remains a concept or a goal more than a clear-cut product.

New Zealander Dr Jenny McArthur is a research associate at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, University College London. Her work focuses on urban policy and the governance of infrastructure systems. 

She says: “The smart city has shifted from an off-the-shelf bundle of technological solutions to a more integrated approach to governing cities. Innovative technology is still central, however what makes the city ‘smart’ is using these technologies in a user-friendly and democratic way.”

 

 

McArthur goes further, saying that a city doesn’t necessarily have to be high-tech to be smart. “The smart city integrates a new approach to governance, using real-time data collection to learn and improve the way we manage urban systems,” she says.

This can and often does work in a democratic way, giving citizens the means to communicate directly with decision-makers and participate in debate over possible choices. However, democracy is not a given. Many of the most visible and talked-about smart city projects are in countries where there isn’t a strong democratic tradition. 

At a 2016 Huawei conference on Smart Cities in Shanghai, So named Singapore, Nanjing and Cameroon as three of its showcase smart cities. The fourth was our own Christchurch, which committed to becoming a smart city when the post-earthquake rebuild started. New Zealand’s Ultrafast Broadband project gives Christchurch and other cities here the underlying technology needed to make its cities smarter, says So. 

Huawei also announced its Safe City Integrated Communication Platform at the conference, which, depending on your point of view, could be seen as a means to help police crack down on crime. It could easily be used to supress dissent too. And that’s the downside of smart cities: in the wrong hands, the idea can have a dystopian vibe. In places like New Zealand this is less of an issue. 

McArthur says: “When we talk about a smart city, it means that the infrastructure systems are information-rich and interconnected – using new technologies to collect and interpret data, to improve the management of infrastructures such as traffic systems and lighting. What’s smart about this is not the technology, but the way it enables better, more responsive decision-making.”

Huawei’s So says that until recently the necessary connections to make a city smart were not in place. This has changed in the last three to four years. However, he says the smart city won’t happen overnight because there is still a lot of work to be done. Huawei is involved in more than 100 smart city projects around the world, yet, he says, it will take time before any of them deliver on the promise of being a truly smart city. 

“For a smart city to work you need an integrated, independent system. It has to be an open IT infrastructure and there must be great connections — you can’t have a smart city without connections,” he says. 

But So says the underpinning connection infrastructure is now in place In New Zealand. The Ultrafast Broadband network is an example of the communications network needed to make smart city projects viable, he says.

Yet, there’s more to a smart city than networks and sensors. McArthur says: “What makes a city smart is not just the technologies, but using them to collect and interpret data in real-time, enabling continuous improvement of services and system operations. It doesn’t always have to be high-tech, the real innovation lies in matching technological solutions to people’s everyday needs.”

The Internet-of-Things has an important role to play in building smart cities. These are systems that use simple computing devices and sensors. The hardware can be connected directly to fibre networks but is just as likely to use one of a number of overlapping, low-power, wireless networking technologies to communicate. 

Today’s sensors and computers are cheap enough to deploy in large numbers wherever there is a need. They can be built in to other devices without adding more than a few cents to the cost. They make it possible for almost anything to relay back information on operational conditions in real time and to take action in response. 

Cities are set to grow even more in importance as more and more people move from small towns to larger centres. Today, more than four billion people, that’s well over half the world’s population, live in urban centres.

We think of New Zealand as being rural, but around three quarters of our citizens live in cities and large towns. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population and an even higher proportion of New Zealanders will be urban. 

There’s a danger city infrastructure will fall behind the pace of growth. You can already see this in Auckland with its housing shortage and the massive investments in transport and water networks being made that are needed to cope with all its new residents. 

Technology doesn’t hold all the answers, but it can help to deal with problems like congestion, air pollution, noise and traffic accidents. A slew of innovative ideas and developments together have the potential to help solve these problems; among them increases in computer processing power, sensor technology, better batteries and more. And we are already building the communications networks that will form the nervous system needed to bring these technologies together.

 

 

Joe So, Huawei Chief Technology Officer of Industry Solutions, Enterprise Business Group