The technologies making up the smart city are often less interesting than their outcomes. However, it is still important that we all know what exactly is allowing us to access wifi for our smartphones in any part of the city, or how traffic congestion is being reduced through technology. This helps both city officials and citizens to know if the right, or most up-to-date, technologies are being deployed in their city, and how their city can improve on their technologies to become even smarter in the future. Understanding these technologies can be difficult, however, as the Smart City technological ecosystem is a complex one, made up of many different areas and stakeholders. Most of the major stakeholders operate across several areas, providing solutions that complement (and sometimes overlap) each other and those of other organizations – big and small.
In order to navigate this overlapping map of different technologies, we have created a simple guide to help you understand the technological foundations of any smart city:
1) Networking and communications
This involves the underlying communications infrastructure that enables smart cities to connect other infrastructure, devices and people, to gather data, and to deliver services to a myriad of endpoints. Low Power WAN technologies, 3/4G evolution, and 5G are examples of networking and communications technologies.
2) Cyber-Physical Systems and IoT
This involves the connection and virtual representation of physical devices to the internet. It is the monitoring of physical infrastructure which is now being connected using open standard protocols (IP, HTTP, etc.) and made accessible through web technologies such as REST. One good example is energy management through, for instance, smart meters and micro-grid technologies. These systems allow private-sector companies, for example automakers, to enter the realm of public services – in this case through gathering data on traffic etc. Citizens can also be empowered to deploy their own low-cost sensors individually or as part of a project to measure, for instance, air-pollution in their local area. This growth in “urban sensing” is underpinned by the communications networks (wired and wireless). IoT is revolutionizing how we can sense and control our surrounding environment, but there are also several trends and issues in the Smart Cities field driving the way we can leverage IoT – smart cities and IoT, therefore, have a symbiotic relationship.
3) Cloud and Edge Computing
Cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service: it offers organizations such as cities ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Privacy and security concerns have meant that many public authorities have been reluctant to use public cloud services for core services, but many cities have experimented with private cloud services and a public/private hybrid infrastructure. Driving city adoption of the cloud is a massive increase in the data that is being generated, captured and analyzed by cities as they start to deploy and exploit IoT technologies. One example of the use of cloud infrastructure in cities is Intelligent Transportation – for instance, Taiwan has exploited cloud computing to handle the high data volume of its Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Edge (or fog) computing is a term used to describe the deployment and use of processing within and at the edge of the network.
Edge computing offers cities ways to manage and monitor distributed infrastructure – ITS, for example, or energy efficiency systems in buildings – where processing is better handled close to infrastructure in order to improve performance and immediacy of data-sharing and action.
4) Big Data and Data Analytics
Trends such as IoT, Open Data, etc. mean that cities are increasingly collecting and making available significant amounts of data. This data can be classed as Big Data because it is high volume, often real-time and extremely varying in its sources, formats and characteristics. The evolving technology that captures, manages and analyses this Big Data leverages technology trends such as cloud computing. Coupled with other technologies such as Hadoop/HDFS, Spark, Hive and a plethora of proprietary tools, cities can now harness big data and analytical tools to improve their city operations.
5) Open Data
In the context of Smart Cities, this refers to public policy that requires or encourages public agencies and private companies to release data sets and make them freely accessible. This data can cover a number of areas: from energy-usage, to crime statistics, to city service levels, to infrastructure data etc. Open Data leverages a number of the technologies already mentioned, like Cloud Computing, IoT, and others. It is focused around transparency but it also makes a lot of information available to the public/third parties, allowing SMEs, start-ups and even individual citizens to, for example, create their own mobile applications to improve city services/people’s lives. A good example of open-data usage in a smart city is Palo Alto’s open-data portal.
6) Citizen Engagement
This is not a “technology” but is an important aspect of many of the smart city technology trends – particularly open-data, IoT and big data. It is a movement towards capitalizing on technology as a tool for greater engagement with citizens – it is closely related to leveraging the “collective intelligence” of cities and communities in order to understand better what citizens need in their daily lives. It aims to make policy more “co-creative” and “participative” and is often implemented through mobile applications or open online forums that allow citizens to share information and communicate directly with city governments. Waze, Ctzen, city hackathons or datathons involving or run by citizens such as Barcelona Air Quality Datathon, crowdsourcing city data, social media campaigns, co-designing and user-centric designed processes to engage citizens in the ideation, design and delivery of new services – like The Bristol Approach – are all examples of citizen engagement methods for smart cities.
Although at the moment, smart city technologies are deployed in a web of different companies and solutions, most organizations are vying to be the provider for smart cities.
Those companies that are able to do so are working towards being able to provide end-to-end solutions to city technology needs – for example end-to-end IoT solutions that cover all traffic and parking monitoring.
However, most players currently lack the scale, money or professional networks to achieve this, resulting in a situation where smart city technology providers tend to work in collaboration with partners from other technology segments. This collaborative approach may be better for cities in the long-run, meaning that no company has a monopoly on smart city technologies and allowing city councils to have greater choice over which technology vendors they opt for. It will also probably benefit citizens – allowing them to engage in “citizen sensing” and become bottom-up stakeholders in, and technological creators of, their own cities.