Smart City Integration: Why Open IT Architectures are Key (Industry Perspective)

Few, if any, cities have put the Internet of Things to large-scale use, but with the continuing growth of cities and calls for sustainability, the adoption of smart city solutions will eventually be inevitable.

by Jürgen Hase, Deutsche Telekom / October 10, 2014
Connected street lighting has been identified as the starting point for an integrated infrastructure as a part of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities. With this type of network, a city could offer Wi-Fi services, check pollution levels or operate charging points for battery-powered vehicles. Shutterstock

The world’s cities are in the throes of change. Driven by the Internet of Things, more smart city solutions are appearing in urban areas. But these solutions must not remain isolated islands if citizens, authorities and enterprises are to benefit from the connected city in equal measure. There is a plea for cross-application management within these platforms.

Now is the time for pilot projects. Cities and local authorities all over the world are experimenting with the use of new information and communication technologies. Apps are guiding motorists to free parking spaces. Street lights are shining more brightly when people pass by. Sensors in garbage cans relay filling levels to garbage collection services. Most smart city solutions have already passed their practical test. 

So far, few, if any, cities have put these solutions to large-scale use, let alone integrated any of them into a more comprehensive ecosystem. Funding may be the problem for some. In other cases, an overarching horizontal platform is missing. 

In the long term, however, the adoption of smart city solutions will be inevitable. Challenges such as continuing growth of cities and calls for ecological and economic sustainability cannot be dealt with by using existing administrative structures alone. According to the United Nations, around 3.63 billion people lived in cities in 2011. That number is set to increase to 6.25 billion, or around 67 percent of the world’s population, by 2050. In addition to that, statutory regulations and ambitious climate targets are putting additional pressure on cities and local authorities.

Integrating individual solutions into the ecosystem

The world’s cities must lay foundations for sustainable, connected cities today. Take parking management, for example. Motorists looking for somewhere to park account for around 30 percent of inner-city traffic. In New York, this number is said to be as high as 45 percent. Sensors put in parking bays that can recognize whether spaces are free or in use could guide motorists to free parking spaces via an app, ultimately improving and reducing the amount of traffic flow, as well as decreasing carbon dioxide emissions released into the air. 

Individual solutions like these clearly address bottlenecking in urban infrastructure. They improve areas such as traffic, energy supplies or garbage disposal. As helpful as these solutions sound, they may not be able to live up to their potential without necessary funding and effective communication between municipalities. The greatest challenge for the future will be to integrate the growing number of smart city solutions into a more comprehensive ecosystem of connected objects, places and people, and that can only be accomplished by means of an overarching administrative platform. 

Facilitate participation

It is important for administrative platforms to provide docking points for citizens, public authorities and corporations, as areas for those with different interests to interact. For example, the general public should have a say in local government policy decisions regarding municipal services. The city, in turn, should provide the same level of service as the one to which they are accustomed from, say, companies in the digital economy. If people can track the status of a shipment of goods to their front door, then they should have the same degree of transparency in renewing their passports. 

Municipal administrations need to make complex administrative tasks more manageable in view of rising populations and falling budgets. Here, too, open platforms show off their strengths by driving collaboration forward – both with private enterprise and between public authorities. Initiatives such as New York City’s Open Data program are a foretaste of the opportunities to which they give rise. Interested citizens and startups analyze the more than 1,100 available data sets, base apps on their findings and create new insights into the pulsating life of the metropolis.

Bridging the gaps

Technically the present situation is comparable with the early days of enterprise resource planning in the 1990s. Just as ERP systems today map business processes from wide-ranging areas and sustain resources across all levels of an organization, an overriding smart city platform should provide an integrated view of all connected objects and collected data. Ideally the platform will combine three components: agnostic object management, horizontal data transport and an application platform.

The agnostic object management controls connectd objects and places such as parking spaces, street lights, water pumps and electricity meters, and does so irrespective of device-specific properties. Horizontal data transport enables any number of horizontal connections between different application areas. It builds bridges between data “islands” in different areas, such as those between pollution levels across the city and health care. The application platform provides APIs, SDKs (software development kits) and other tools for developers. It speeds up the development of new applications or the adaptation of existing services to changing municipal infrastructure requirements. 

From street lighting to multifunctional network

Can cities and local authorities begin to implement overarching platforms? Smart street lighting is a good start. Every street light is equipped with an electronic ballast, which will enable the city to check the status of all street lights remotely and define events for which lights are to be switched on and off or dimmed. 

One benefit of the combination of light-emitting diodes and programmable lighting management is the reduction of electricity bills by up to 70 percent and maintenance costs by 10 percent. In addition, street lights are ideal pillars for a citywide, application-agnostic network. That is why the European Commission identified connected street lighting as the starting point for an integrated infrastructure as a part of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities. With this type of network, a city could offer Wi-Fi services, check pollution levels or operate charging points for battery-powered vehicles.

Jürgen Hase is the director of the M2M (Machine-to-Machine) Competence Center for Deutsche Telekom, a German telecommunications company founded in 1996.