Cities are only as smart as their businesses

A truly smart city is one which is built on a free and open exchange of data, supplied by businesses and enabled by the internet of things
Las Vegas is using IoT technology to help city personnel make better decisions
Las Vegas is using IoT technology to help city personnel make better decisions

Science fiction provides fantastic visions of a connected city, but as this futuristic reality dawns, its success will be driven by companies using the internet of things (IoT).

From smart energy grids to traffic logistics, public transportation to waste management and street lighting to connected living or working, vast networks of sensors across smart cities will harness masses of data collected in ways we’ve never seen before.

But unless the C-suite prepares right now to lead, and is willing to fund innovation, it may fail to satisfy the demands of employees, customers, suppliers and citizens.

José Manuel Benedetti, director of strategy and digital transformation at Insight, says: “A smart city means more than allocating free parking spaces or optimising street lighting with smart lamps. C-suite executives need the technology to take advantage of the huge amount of data connected cities will create.

“Many organisations still rely on human employees to review data from IoT applications and make decisions. The volume of data from even a small smart city would make this impossible. They need layers of automated decision-making algorithms to complement the process and give human decision-makers only the information they need.”

Cities that invest, cities that learn, cities that understand the technology, will be the cities of the future

Establishing itself at the heart of a smart city ecosystem will also be a key challenge for business. As Benedetti explains, each must consume and use data, while generating and feeding back its own so the streams react to each other.

“One of our clients uses drones with smart image processing software to monitor railway tracks for faults,” he says. “In a smart city, a similar application for roads would, when combined with businesses’ own data from their vehicles, identify when infrastructure, such as bridges, is overloaded and needs repair. Data from these vehicles then helps the city plan any extra traffic control measures.”

Smart city solutions gather data in urban areas

With so much being promised, experts believe the C-suite needs a long-term, structured approach to harness these opportunities and help them cope with new policies and rules.

Nick Sacke, head of IoT and products at Comms365, says digital-twin programmes can be the answer. Cities create a digital copy of the infrastructure and operations and this updates dynamically when data from sensors and other sources is received and processed.

He explains: “This is a fantastic resource and facility for companies that want to play a role in the planning and delivery of infrastructure, utilities and services, as potential complexities and problems can be modelled upfront.

“Access to the digital-twin data in many cities is planned to be made available to all businesses, with some data sources freely available, while others are chargeable. The return on investment for using their enhanced data should be well worth the investment.”

One current example of smart city ideas using IoT is in Las Vegas. With 40 million visitors a year, it worked with NTT, in partnership with VMware and Dell Technologies, to create a real-time network of information that uses artificial intelligence and machine-learning to remove a significant burden from key city personnel when it comes to critical decision-making.

Michael Sherwood, director of innovation and technology for the City of Las Vegas, says: “Cities that invest, cities that learn, cities that understand the technology, will be the cities of the future.”

Smart city projects need IoT technology 

Smart cities will also offer companies the chance to develop better logistics over time, creating agility for stock supplies and storage plus efficiencies in delivery, while informing demand-driven manufacturing in smart factories. Much will be driven by 5G, resulting in data transfer speeds and the responsiveness of multiple devices being used at once increasing greatly.

Kevin Hasley, chief executive at RootMetrics, says: “Smart cities can be crucial for businesses by enabling them to better understand the urban realm and powering game-changing tech applications like autonomous vehicles and drones.

“Pitfalls though could lie in timing the investment needed, varying 5G adoption rates and speeds of implementation, plus regulatory barriers, which could cause issues and delays in future. Understanding the local performance standards of 5G is going to be crucial in helping businesses to navigate this and make the most of the smart cities opportunity.”

Applied futurist Tom Cheesewright thinks data literacy as another challenge. “Most organisations are struggling to make good use of the data they have to drive evidence-based decisions. Companies won’t realise the benefits of IoT technologies unless they address this,” he says.

“The technology investment is probably quite small. It’s more about skills and culture. Who has access to the data? Who is responsible for extracting answers? How do different functions collaborate around that data?

“A technology-first approach is the biggest trap; a whole city monitored and controlled from a tablet is attractive to some in leadership, but the most successful cities are necessarily messy and organic. You need to start by laying out a coherent framework, but then pick single problems you can solve and build those as point solutions.”

Alicia Asín, chief executive of Libelium, says companies must not forget the end-user. “For any of these smart city solutions to work, experience tells us that citizen buy-in is critical,” she says. “None of us would have thought we would need to encourage people to use contact-tracing and social-distancing apps. It has required building trust and ensuring transparency as not everyone will be skilled at using some of the new technologies. More than ever, we need to address this end-user audience and make sure they become part of the smart city solution.”