One of the things industries like to do is hype new or emerging technologies to the max. I get that. Everybody want to be at the front of the pack and aim for the lion’s share of the pot at the end of the rainbow.
As well, at the beginning, just about every platform or technology is going to solve all the worlds’ ills. It was that way with 5G, the Internet of Everything (IoX), millimeter wave, and so on. That, I guess, is the way of the world, nowadays.
However, eventually the cooler heads come out and put a reality check on them. That is a good thing. Building up too many expectations is not in the best interests of the supplier/provider, nor the recipient/user.
One thing society is beginning to find out is that why, if we have the technology, are we not using it. The answer to this question is somewhat complex, and varies from industry to industry, but for the first time in the last century, or so, automatically implementing technology, because we have it, is no longer a given in all cases.
Let us examine smart cities for a moment. There are innumerable accounts of smart cites, when they will happen, what they will look like, what platforms and technologies will be used, etc…ect…ect… However, progress is slow, even though there are government incentives. For example, the European Union has developed a program called Horizon 2020. It was established to drive innovation and secure the region’s global competitiveness, especially in deploying digital technology into the city ecosystem. They allocated €80 billion to cities in the years 2014-2020.
The United States is on a similar track. Back in 2015, the Feds set aside $160 million for smart city projects. This year, they added another $80 million. On top of that, the Department of Transportation (DOT) offered $50 million to seven mid-sized U.S. cities to develop smart mobility projects.
Making a city smart is a promising solution to many of the challenges cities face in the 21st century. The growth of cities is bringing about a multitude of new problems and issues – some that were not even on the drawing board. Yet, progress is slow and non-governmental funding is scarce – why?
One reason is that actually making it smart faces a plethora of challenges – some technical, some political, some economic. Let us drill down on some of these.
The first of several challenges is commercial scalability. Making solutions such as street lights, garbage collection or parking smart is one thing. Scaling that to the plethora of city services that can benefit from smart technology is quite another. There is no real model on how to do that and cities are not able to generate sufficient revenue from smart city platforms to expand to other services (public safety, for example). In addition, with little commercial funding, cities are challenged to divert funds from already stressed budgets. The technology may be there, but the money to implement it is not.
Right up there with commercial scalability is wide-scale integration. That means the entire city. This is really the big one. When one looks at the magnitude of the diverse elements that make up a city – from academia to enterprises to city services to various levels of the government, the task seems insurmountable. The challenge here is to be able to interface and interconnect so many individual focused entities and share the intelligence and implement collaboration. So far, there are no solutions for such a diverse and broad ecosystem.
Anyone who has ever dealt with city departments knows all too well that they are protective of their intellectual property. Even long before it was called that, trying to get city departments to share data was challenging. Today, it is even more challenging due to so many new privacy regulations as well as security concerns. As well, there is the question of what to do with all the data we are now capable of collecting.
The data issue is only going to get bigger. Smart cities live and die by data. Moreover, to truly utilize all of the technology and platforms smart cities need to implement will require a radically new data management strategy.
Perhaps the most challenging scenario is culture. Culture is not only across peoples, but across organizations and locations. There is such a diverse cultural ecosystem across these entities that developing a working model that can interface these cultures is extremely difficult. And it becomes more difficult as cultures vary on a global basis.
In the end, when one pulls back the covers, the deployments that are in place today are only a collage of stand-alone solutions being portrayed under the loose definition of a smart city.
It is one thing to use technology to solve individual challenges. The key to the smart city of the future will be to link them so the solutions can collaborate, be agile and seamlessly come together to integrate the city elements.
Ernest Worthman is the Executive Editor of Applied Wireless Technology magazine. A Life Member of the IEEE, his 20-plus years of editorial experience includes being the Editorial Director of Wireless Design and Development and Fiber Optic Technology, the Editor of RF Design, the Technical Editor of Communications Magazine, Cellular Business, Global Communications and a Contributing Technical Editor to Mobile Radio Technology, Satellite Communications, as well as computer-related periodicals such as Windows NT.