Exploring the Smart Cities Concept

June 19, 2019 Wojciech Szczepucha

“Smart cities” is a concept that often gets a mixed reception. Some don’t understand it, some are fully aware and engaging with it, and others have not even heard of it. Yet, smart cities are a growing concept and are bound to become commonplace sooner or later. What’s more, they’ll benefit residents and businesses alike in the long run.

Part of the problem is that we often think of ‘smart’ technology at the singular level. We know that our phone, TV, and cars can be smart, but we don’t think about networks or synchronised components as ‘smart’. However, this just isn’t true. In fact, it can be argued that these systems, which combine the smaller units, are the next step in smart technology sophistication.

This is something we touched upon with edge computing, but it’s really worth exploring in more detail, as it encompasses Machine Learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), the Cloud and more!

What Are Smart Cities?

In any operation, efficiency is important. A delay in one area impacts everything further along, while incorrect information will lead to incorrect actions.

This is something we’ve already seen in the likes of manufacturing and supply chains – with Industry 4.0 showing that a little optimisation brings big benefits – but why shouldn’t this apply to cities? Urban landscapes are full of moving components, as well as systems operating side by side.

Everything is interconnected, so problems that impact one area often trickle down to others. Digital technology can remove these issues, bringing benefits across the board. When such technology becomes common across key areas of a city – from real-time transportation management to simulating civil engineering – you have a smart city.

What Does A Smart City Architecture Look Like?

When it comes to smart city architecture, there is no one specific framework. This is because some smart cities have evolved over the years, as different networks integrate and cooperate, while others are built on platforms for specific purposes. In any case, there are a few unique factors that are always present, such as data-collecting sensors, the Internet of Things, and the integration of effectors.

It’s also vital to note that the concept of a smart city and IoT go hand in hand. After all, it’s the IoT, in the form of the various sensors that exist in a given space, that provide the necessary data. Any sensor or device that isn’t internet-enabled often doesn’t have the means to provide data fast enough – which is something we’ll come back to shortly.

This, in turn, often lends itself to a distributed network, with different companies or services collecting and utilising their own data. However, an accessible Cloud platform can be used to collect the data that can be shared, creating a central location for other services looking to integrate.

Even then, different agencies or companies will still have their own systems, so you can think of smart cities as a series of microservices that interact with a shared central repository more than a static, combined monolith. So, yes, macro-scale microservices.

Finally, effectors are also required to benefit from such findings. For example, traffic sensors can pick up on congestion, but if the traffic lights themselves aren’t integrated, the system can’t take any actions to relieve this.

Why Are Smart Cities Important?

As cities become larger and larger, and the range of services become more convoluted, the need for cooperative efficiency is increasingly vital. Companies, services, and facilities that work side by side should do their best to share resources and create strategies that are mutually beneficial. Because of the growing amount of data involved, this scale has grown past practical human comprehension in many ways.

Consequently, Big Data is needed to understand all of this information – and the IoT is often utilised to collect it – but then, Machine Learning is often needed to act on it. It’s this logical progression that eventually necessitates the idea of the smart city.

Advantages of A Smart City

There are many advantages of smart city technology. At the most base layer, they allow for efficiency and optimisation, collecting large amounts of data and improving services and features as a result.

With further integration, they enable different services that would otherwise conflict to work alongside each other. Cities have different agencies, companies and services all using or revolving around the same resources, whether it’s money, a utility such as energy, or simply urban space itself. Properly integrated, the drain on these is spread out more evenly, preventing bottlenecks or issues that might otherwise develop.

For example, a smart city might be able to better assess local power conditions, identify areas where consumption is being pushed to its limits and, likewise, identify corners where consumption is low. Connected networks and systems can then access this, so some can move to low-peak periods. This is just one example of many in terms of available smart city benefits.

Smart Cities & Data

Needless to say, to be at the most effective, smart cities require Big Data – and we mean big. This is why smart cities with open data often have broader implications, as different systems can add their own data, contributed to the greater potential, while also having access to more knowledge for their own purposes.

Of course, the counterpart to this is that such information often needs to be stored somewhere. We already mentioned that many smart cities are more distributed, but we are seeing a gradual shift to smart city platforms and government initiatives. Various councils or governments are investing in a central platform which, not least of all, enables a smart city’s Big Data to be centrally stored, accessed, and used.

In terms of the data itself, many suggest storing this information as a data lake, where it can be stored enmasse while it is undefined. Once it is manipulated and structured, data warehouses can be used to store specific data sets.

Likewise, all of this data needs to be processed, interpreted and responded to as quickly as possible. So it should come as no surprise to learn that smart cities and Artificial Intelligence (AI) go hand in hand. After all, collecting information at scale is certainly useful, but a smart city AI is needed to deliver results.

This occurs in a number of areas. For factors where time-sensitive decisions need to be made (such as traffic management and power usage/generation), AI can accurately respond in speeds that manual human input cannot accomplish.

Who Benefits From Smart Cities?

We’ve already established that smart cities look to optimise and refine in an endless cycle of continuous improvement, but who exactly is this for?

In short, everyone! But let’s go through some of the key groups that both benefit from (and, in many cases, contribute to) smart city networks.

Smart Cities, Urban Planning & Civil Engineering

Smart city traffic management is one of the most commonly used examples for smart cities, and for good reason. For urban planners, transportation has always been an issue. After all, traffic peaks in different directions at different times, so a solution that fits all certainly requires a lot of data and thought.

For many civil engineers, smart cities and urban analytics are a dream come true. Combined with the ability to simulate environments via Digital Twins, they can ensure new designs or features work holistically with the city, rather than discovering key issues after the fact.

Going back to the traffic example, in addition to testing in the Cloud, civil engineers can then install sensors and Machine Learning algorithms to better compensate in real-time. Smart highways and roads offer mid-lanes that can change direction to meet demand. Combined with historical data, cities can prepare, predict and adapt to any changes.

Another example of the smart approach is prioritising tram and bus traffic during traffic queues. For instance, in our own city of Wroclaw, sensors are installed not only on every traffic light, but also inside of municipal transportation, and certain algorithms are used with real-time data so that public transport can pass through cross-roads without the need to stop.

Individual Citizens

Of course, these solutions also directly benefit the individuals within, ensuring smart cities for all means and purposes. Traffic management improves daily commutes, for instance, while urban planning and utility management make things better for lives within the city.

In a more direct approach, smart cities can also benefit users through direct smart city applications. Such apps can utilise the wealth of data available and offer AI-enhanced solutions.

For example, a traffic app might notify users of traffic jams, but if it redirects all drivers on the same road, won’t this result in similar traffic issues elsewhere? An advanced enough AI or Machine Learning solution can simulate these issues in the Cloud (thanks to a Digital Twin) and deliver a solution that offers a more ideal compromise.

Someone driving to work can get real time recommendations on journey times, helping them to decide whether to go by car or seek other means (such as public transport).

In time, this can also be combined with all other data to predict and prepare for behaviour. For example, pairing traffic data with weather information might show when traffic is more likely to increase and, with this in mind, smart traffic lanes can precisely adapt and operate holistically.

Other Companies

This, perhaps, is where the crux of the issue lies. In many ways, smart cities are already here and are being implemented in various forms around the world. As such, the real question isn’t when smart cities will arrive – but what can businesses do to build on this?

Organisations now have an opportunity to improve the offers and services to better fit a modern city lifestyle. Smart cities both offer a wealth of data and enable you to better integrate into the modern ecosystem. Both of these factors enable companies to ensure they are fitting into today’s lifestyle by going with the tide, rather than against it.

Directly benefiting from smart cities is easy. Traffic data and power consumption are two such examples, but the advantages smart cities offer go much further than this. Companies can use data to assess new strategies and test new solutions to see if they are viable. Extra information enables greater accuracy – something each and every business stands to benefit from.

Smart Cities In Europe

As a prevalently tech-orientated continent, it should go without saying that there are many smart cities in Europe. Of course, the level of integration varies from one location to another, but here are some of the more interesting and advanced examples.

Amsterdam

The capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s smart city initiative has been active since 2009. From the start, this program sought to combine the data and systems from 32 distinct districts.

This centralised hub allowed the city to learn a wealth of new information – from areas in need of higher levels of healthcare to simply how many bridges exist in the city – that can then be used to optimise city processes, and directly benefit citizens.

A key example of this is the Wyzer App from Wander. The app combines data from maps, GSP and tourism records to help guide tourists with “fuzzy navigation”. This guides users to where they want to go, but avoids congestion by providing alternative routes and showcasing some of the city’s hidden secrets along the way. For a city that has almost 20 million tourists each year, but is only home to 1 million, ‘overtourism’ is a very real problem.

London

In recent years, London has often ranked as one of the top smart cities in the world and it is continuing to develop. The goal is to combine resources from various authorities with those of universities and high-tech companies.

More recently, the city has rolled out more sensors to help achieve some of its goals. For example, lamp posts and buildings in polluted areas now have sensors to monitor air quality. This can then be used to more accurately measure low air quality and create optimised approaches to tackle this.

Likewise, a lot of emphasis is being placed on combating traffic congestion, helping to ease commutes, reduce delays and, likewise, cut down on unnecessary pollution.

Vienna

Vienna’s smart city framework and strategy has been in place since June 2014, supported by the local Smart City Agency, with a goal to improve the overall quality of life for local residents by 2050.

During this time span, many areas are being addressed. Drones are being implemented for technical maintenance and installation, initiatives are underway to save power at home and workplaces, and more. One unique example, however, is a project to protect the Common Swift. Using data gathered by residents, the city is tracking nesting sites and using this information to help architects – both in building new structures and refurbishing existing ones – to ensure these sites aren’t damaged or removed.

Barcelona

Smart technology can be found everywhere in Barcelona and the city is doing as much as possible to keep things integrated and automated. Smart lighting adjusts lights as people are near, but is also tied into WiFi, fiber optic cabling, car charging stations, among other factors. All of this helps reduce costs, as well as cut down on pollution through generated emissions.

Likewise, Barcelona has also adapted a smart city approach to traffic management within the 22nd District. The smart city parking concept is actually quite simple: sensors are placed underneath key parking locations. Drivers can use the Fastprk system to be guided to available spots. The end result is reduced traffic and emissions from drivers, who are now able to move directly to a specific spot that they know is available.

Smart Cities In The World

Of course, smart cities aren’t just restricted to Europe. They’re found the world over and, in fact, some of the leading examples can be found in both Asia and the Middle East.

Singapore

Singapore is, without a doubt, the leading smart city in the world. This year alone it is spending approximately $1 billion US (roughly £787 million) on its smart city initiative. The city has already won numerous awards for its efforts and, with such continued development, this is the city to keep an eye on for leading, cutting-edge solutions.

Public utilities, educational and healthcare portals, ride-hailing, and more is all being developed with smart technology. Due to the advanced amount of IoT sensors, including cameras, Singapore is becoming a testing bed of sorts for new smart city solutions. What works here will likely be taken up in similar projects elsewhere.

Dubai

If you want an example of a smart city that’s a little more creative, Dubai is one of the best examples. The city is brewing up new ideas, ranging from autonomous flying cars to a smart police station (where a quarter of the workforce are robotic in nature) by 2030. In fact, the latter is already underway with robot cops and guards in specific areas.

Likewise, many of its new projects, from harbours and islands to new hotels and structures, are all being built from the ground up with smart technology in mind.

Summary

Smart cities are already here. While the extent that any individual location is set-up will of course vary, it’s clear that cities as a whole are moving to a more integrated, optimised future. While this of course benefits citizens on a day to day basis, businesses can also benefit from working with the cities they operate in, rather than going against the flow of other processes, organisations or structures they cohabit said cities with. This can be done by both utilising public data, as well as contributing your own information and sensors where possible.

So, how can you get started? As mentioned earlier, smart cities are arguably the logical progression from Big Data and IoT solutions. The easiest place to start is to embrace the Cloud (as well as the aforementioned technologies, depending on your organisation) and look to optimise as much as possible.

Business Perspective

Smart cities focus on the sharing of data, information, and processes to better optimise existing solutions, as well as to more effectively plan new ones. By utilising IoT sensors, external information and any other data sources, businesses can better streamline their solutions, as well as how their company interacts with the cities they operate in.

References

Last posts