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Why Smart City Development Relies on Relationships

Each government’s political and socioeconomic status is the key differentiator in how smart cities develop.

by Don DeLoach and Brenna Berman / September 21, 2016
Singapore is building a smart nation by harnessing technology with the aim of improving the lives of its residents. Shutterstock

No matter what corner of the globe you travel, Internet of Things (IoT) technology is rapidly transforming every facet of city life. For instance, Singapore is building a smart nation by harnessing technology with the aim of improving the lives of its residents, creating more opportunities and building stronger communities, while Dubai launched its smart city strategy, which aims to engage various constituents and stakeholders to shape the city’s efforts.

Here in the U.S., the Obama administration is pushing forward with its Smart Cities Initiative to invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate and improving the delivery of city services. And on a local level, Chicago is implementing the Array of Things project, a network of interactive, modular sensor nodes that will be installed around the city to collect real-time data on the environment, infrastructure and activity for research and public use.

These global initiatives are examples of the modern, integrated city, where working, living and playing are no longer separate entities. Modern cities, and the activities that determine a city’s culture, are smartly connected. They are instrumented to collect massive amounts of data about a wide variety of “things” going on in the city, and built to analyze that information in meaningful ways to make the city better for its residents and businesses (e.g., optimizing rapid transit routes, determining more efficient water cleansing systems, analysis to ease congestion during rush hour traffic and so on).

This is an ongoing trend and there appears to be no slowing the global spread — the smart city infrastructure market is expected to grow 17 percent worldwide by 2020. 

Given the growing interest among governments to leverage sophisticated IoT advancements to enhance the ways they deliver vital services and programs to their residents, it’s no surprise that technologies such as sensors, data storage and analysis have evolved tenfold over the past few years.

ABI Research estimates that machine-learning-as-a-service models will hit nearly $20 billion in 2021 as companies increasingly adopt IoT-based technologies, such as security, analytics and operating systems. Additionally, IDC predicts there will be approximately 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes, of data by 2020 — a staggering amount to take place in such a short period of time (to provide some context, this means data amounts will more than double every two years for the next decade or so). IDC also reveals that data amounts in emerging markets such as, for example, South America and Asia will surpass those in more mature markets by 2017.

What’s more, standardization across these technologies has become more prevalent. At the first World Smart City Forum, three organizations — the International Electrotechnical Commission, International Organization for Standardization and International Telecommunication Union — came together and published International Standards that provide technical tools to enable the integration of city services and technologies.

At the forum, these organizations heard from city planners, utilities and service providers who said international standards are critical to help connect the different suppliers — who are responsible for operating many of the systems used in today’s cities — both physically and virtually to ensure an expected performance level and compatibility between technologies. What this means is that the emergence of standardization policies is making it easier for governments to implement smart city initiatives than ever before because the various puzzle pieces are starting to fit together in an easier fashion.

Despite the IoT’s rapid evolution and the fact that emerging standardization has made access to these technologies very similar across the board, with each city having access to essentially the same building blocks, some cities have gained an edge over others in spearheading the smart city revolution. But why this discrepancy?

The answer lies in each individual country’s political and socioeconomic status, meaning how infrastructure needs and the political structure come to bare contextually is the key differentiator in how these smart cities develop. While two different countries may have similar goals — efficient street lighting, better connectivity, or better monitoring of city movements and congestion — and the tools to make it happen, the relationship between a government and its people is the deciding factor.

For example, Juniper Research’s Steffen Sorrell talked with Forbes about the top-five smart cities in the world as uncovered by his team of researchers in a recent report. While each city is striving for smart city success in its own right, Sorrell explained that there is a correlation between government regulation in pushing cities to be smart. “Cities tend to be budget-constrained, requiring them to look for private investment,” he said. “Furthermore, municipal governments need to bridge siloed agencies for maximum effectiveness, as well as look at transferring services to a cloud infrastructure. Naturally, that requires overcoming a city’s governmental inertia and a deep understanding of a city’s individual requirements.”

The key takeaway from Sorrell is this: Governments must have a deep understanding of a city’s individual requirements in order to fully embark on a successful smart city initiative. Take for example Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates. At the heart of the matter is the city’s desire to be the world’s first sustainable smart city with no carbon footprint. The city’s design reflects the precepts of the circular economy, when as natural resources become increasingly rare, threatening the city’s social model, the government strongly prioritizes sustainability at the top of its economic development.

Abu Dhabi believes its investment into Masdar City’s smart city project will “yield dividends” over time in the form of energy savings and innovation. The city hopes to attract 1,500 businesses that specialize in sustainable products and technology, plus more than 50,000 residents.

Masdar City’s “zero-waste, zero-carbon” smart city initiative is an example of how the desire for a more environmentally responsible society is influencing the type of decisions government makes when considering the infrastructure needed for smart development. Conversely, the needs of Masdar City serve a vastly different interest than, say, those in countries such as in Asia. Smart city developments in Asia are instead influenced by the digitization of their infrastructure, which has nearly 50 percent of the world’s Internet users and nearly 55 percent of the world’s mobile phone ownership, making it a relatively easy transition to support smart city technology from an infrastructure perspective.

Take Singapore for example, whose dominance in this realm can be attributed to the fact that it is the top Asian country in connectivity and digital transformation using information and communications technology (according to Huawei’s Global Connectivity Index 2016). Having this technological infrastructure in place shows that the country not only prioritizes digital innovation, but in doing so, also makes it easier for the government to align current and future initiatives with these greater goals.

In developed countries such as the United States, the challenge is not so much what a city can offer its people, but instead how it can maintain legacy infrastructure systems, which cannot be abandoned due to cost, space and other considerations. In these cases, governments can focus smart city applications more on facilitating the optimal use of existing infrastructure resources and monitoring the operations of such legacy resources.

Chicago is an example of a U.S. city that has fine-tuned the successful optimization of its existing infrastructures to make the Midwest a hot bed for technology and smart city innovation. The city’s Array of Things is an open source initiative that will ultimately extend to many cities around the world.

The idea is that a number of sensors will be built into a hardened module or “node.” Each node contains multiple sensors as well as the power, connectivity and computational function necessary to connect each node into a single, urban scale instrument. Because the individual sensors can be swapped out over time as technology develops, as the needs of Chicago evolve and depending on what researchers wish to study (e.g., sound intensity, light, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, vibration, air quality, etc.), the Array of Things is creating a flexible infrastructure for urban scale data collection.

The city government is deploying nodes all over Chicago on public traffic poles, whereby the data gathered can generate a much more granular and diverse set of data that will allow greater insight as to conditions around the city, including the ability to do forensic analysis to determine cause and effect relationships ranging from air quality to traffic conditions and more. Again, they have combined existing ideas and updated current infrastructures in a way that will generate new insights.

The differences in IoT and smart city applications we are seeing globally result from the ways each city chooses to implement technologies to serve its societal needs. Smart cities will become more and more a reality, and in more places as governments learn what regional factors are most important to their residents, and what technology they have at their disposal to create the smart city innovations that will soon be commonplace across the world.

Don DeLoach is CEO and president of Infobright, a provider of a purpose-built platform for storing and analyzing machine data. He also serves on the Executive Board of the Illinois Technology Association, is co-chairman of the ITA Internet of Things Council and is on the Board of the Juvenile Protective Association.

Brenna Berman is Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology commissioner and CIO. She has transformed the team to align with the mayor’s commitment to an open and data-driven government, building Chicago’s open data program into one of the largest in the country and implementing the WindyGrid spatial analytics platform into every level of government, integrating advanced analytics and real-time data-driven decision-making across the city.


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