The challenges to making a city smart are many. I have been following the topic, with great interest, and have had many discussions around it. I have said that smart cities suffer from the same malady, as does 5G – overhyping. Like 5G, there has been much hype but real progress has been slower than the industry would like one to believe.
There are a number of reasons for this, things like opposition from NIMBYs, or in this case NMFYs, cost, access rights, dealing with municipalities, players interaction, perception (what constitutes a “smart” city) and, quite frankly, the technology itself.
Early attempts at smart cities involved adding intelligence to narrow vectors. Setting up Wi-Fi apps around the city center, for example. Or, smart parking meters (although that just made it easier for right-of-way enforcement to issue tickets). Some progress has also been made in smart lighting and smart signals. However, by and large, cities have not yet evolved, IMHO, to the level of real smarts.
The ante is about to be upped. Technology that can be implemented, to add intelligence, which can be utilized in city infrastructures is starting to emerge and is practical. I believe that 2019 will see the beginnings of smart cities coming of age.
One of the most interesting discussions I had was with the Verizon Smart City Initiative’s vice president, Lani Ingram, at the recent Smart City Conference in Denver. She had a very interesting perspective on how smart cities will evolve, and one that I think is spot-on.
Her take on it is that there are four stages to the evolution of smart cities. The first, of course, is the concept. Following that is the implementation of smart city strategies. Once that has evolved, the next stage is actually deploying various smart city technologies, systems and hardware. The last stage, and this is always the coup de grace, is full integration among all players, technologies and deployments.
Ingram’s position is not unique to smart cities. I have long maintained that, in order for any platform to be fully functional and optimal, it requires integration with the infrastructure – that means two-way communications. One-way sensors are just not capable of providing all the data that is necessary, even with advanced AI (I will likely get some disagreement with that, however).
For smart cities, the case for one-way sensors may be a bit more relaxed (for static apps, at least). For the more complex requirements (autonomous vehicles, for example), passive sensors are not going to cut it. Smart, two-way sensors that can communicate with each other and the core, via a mesh network will be much more effective in any platform. My discussions at the conference, with more than one high-level individual, confirm that integration is necessary for the final stage of full intelligence.
According to Ingram, we are now at stage two. Again, I tend to agree, especially from what I saw at the conference. There is a slew of smart city applications and devices, and some test beds. Much of the discussion is around partnerships between cities, utility companies, and device vendors.
One interesting scenario is in the city of Las Vegas. The city has collaborated with both Dell and NTT data systems to incubate a smart city scenario in part of the city. At present, it only involves cameras and audio detectors. However, what makes this an interesting testbed is what is being done with the acquired data. It is too lengthy to go into here, but how the data is being analyzed and what decisions are being made by AI is quite exciting. From what I saw, their concept is very good at resource planning and distribution, i.e. past analysis predicts future occurrences. What got my attention is who is getting into the game. I was quite surprised to talk to Dell and hear what they are into. They certainly are not your father’s computer hardware vendor.
As far as hardware goes, it has come a long way in a year. Smart light poles are capable of becoming an intelligent, multi-access point integrating a number of wireless platforms. One of the more interesting, and advanced, was a “black box” from Ubicquia. It is the first stand-alone wireless system that can be attached to any light pole out there to add wireless capabilities.
Other intelligent devices included trashcans and dumpsters with the ability to send a variety of data to a host, including such things as sensing noxious gases and explosive components. These are here and ready to go, today.
Parking is getting smart as well. Not only meters, but also parking lot kiosks and stall sensors that can relay information back to the host and can be integrated with end user’s smartphones. Another cool application was blockchain-secured, smart voting booths.
I can go on for another thousand words about all the cool things I saw and what is being developed in the smart city ecosystem. A lot of what was concept last year is tangible now. It is just looking for a home.
The biggest issue, as always, and there was a great deal of discussion around this, is getting cities, utilities, private enterprise and regulators all on the same page. That will be the biggest speedbump to overcome. However, I was encouraged by what I saw and heard. This year is producing some traction. Next year may be the year we see real progress ramping up in real smart city ecosystems.