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Smart cities: The future is now


The ‘smart city’ phenomenon has been fascinating humankind for thousands of years. Think back to ancient Rome a complex interconnected urban system that applied new technologies to manage everything from public transport systems to the distribution of energy sources. In those days aqueducts and water drainage systems transformed citizens’ lives not to mention the paved roads which revolutionised transport.

Fast forward 1,500 years and the rate of technological development continues, ushering in innovations such as driverless cars, intelligent traffic systems and delivery bots. One aspect, however, remains the same: progress does not happen overnight, as Antonio Bocigas, EMEA telco director at Lenovo, reports.

Close to the edge

For modern day smart cities to be most effective, a high bandwidth, low-latency network capable of handling vast amounts of data is vital. And while reliable and affordable 5G is rolling out across cities, network connectivity is still lacking in some areas.

The answer? Edge computing: a distributed computing paradigm that brings computer and data storage closer to the sources of data. Edge technology allows faster decisions to be made, and data processed in real-time within the device itself, as opposed to needing to send information to a faraway data centre for processing. Response times are therefore quicker a key factor when it comes to managing the high bandwidth technologies that are essential for smart cities and ensuring that they are a success.

An edge computing network also tends to be more reliable and cost-efficient a win-win for local governments. This is because, with on-device decision making via artificial intelligence, data does not have to be stored on a cloud network as only important data is processed.

Leading by example

Barcelona is one city leading the way in implementing smart, data-driven technology with the aim of improving the lives of its citizens. In 2015, the city started a process of network transformation through a series of pilot schemes and work is continuing today. On top of developing a 5G network and private infrastructure, Barcelona is working with partners such as Lenovo to explore other use cases for building a future with smarter technology. Self-driving 5G buses, for example.

If this sounds like a pipe dream, think again, because the project is already under way. In collaboration with Fira de Barcelona the city’s trade fair institution it aims to provide sustainable mobility solutions in large, enclosed spaces.

The project is supported with the infrastructure for the overall deployment of a private 5G stand-alone network. Beyond transport, it will also be deployed to help law enforcement in the city. By using a video feed that can be analysed in real-time using AI, police will be able to detect crimes and protect the public. Put simply, technology is ultimately able to provide substantially more resources to the emergency services, meaning they can react faster when the need arises.

Having already built more than 3,000 street cabinets to hold key tech infrastructure, Barcelona has an incredible opportunity to continue its path to digital transformation. As such, the city has set out ambitious plans which will set the tone when it comes to efficiency, transparency, and social innovation. And while we can look to Barcelona as an example, it is important to remember that one size does not fit all. As a coastal city and popular tourist destination, its challenges are different to those in the rest of the world.

One size doesn’t fit all

All cities will have different needs and challenges as they strive to become smarter. To maximise the benefits, these must be accounted for from the beginning. Barcelona, for example, is a popular beach-side holiday destination. Therefore, network capacity management in crowded environments such as the beach is extremely important. In its latest pilot, Barcelona aims to adapt its 5G strategy in order to ensure its network capabilities are flexible while also extending connectivity services to shaded areas where network resource needs are highly seasonal, such as beaches.

Mexico, however, has a very different challenge, posed by widespread water shortages. These shortages have worsened amid extreme temperatures due to climate change, so that is where the authorities have focused their efforts. Indeed, Mexico is already leading the way when it comes to smart cities in Latin America , with four cities each with unique challenges considered Intelligent Cities by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

By taking a smart approach to infrastructure, the country will be able to use technology to effectively monitor water levels and consumption. And in the process ensure the infrastructure is in place to overcome water shortages the modern-day equivalent to what the Romans achieved.

Despite each city having different needs, there is a specific set of characteristics that help to identify and measure its level of ‘smartness’. Smart cities are based on the idea that people can live and work in the most efficient way while making the most of their resources. For example, by collecting data on energy usage both from a personal level and within building control systems, consumption can be reduced. Combining that with managing traffic and keeping a close eye on air quality can help cities and entire countries hit emissions targets.

In addition, by looking at live data, measures can be taken to reduce harmful levels of air pollution, such as issuing restrictions on traffic in certain areas. Congestion can then be combated by monitoring live video streams and signalling controls to ensure cities keep moving.

The urban future

Creating a smart future for our cities is always going to bring challenges. Given that servers are often placed on highways or streets, physical security is vital. We have already established how fundamental smart city functions can be, so they need to be protected to ensure they are always running smoothly. There also needs to be a clear strategy in place for success.

“Without the need for a central cloud control system, each sensor can survive a network outage or inconsistent coverage.”

Antonio Bocigas

Barcelona may have constructed over 3,000 street cabinets but larger cities will naturally need more, so the infrastructure needs to be carefully thought out and placed appropriately to ensure the best possible coverage. This is another area where edge computing can help. Better still, without the need for a central cloud control system, each sensor can survive a network outage or inconsistent coverage.

Local governments want to save money on cities while making them as productive and efficient as they can be. Being smart is the way forward. The key is to have a clear vision and understand the city’s unique infrastructure and community needs not just for a year or two, but much longer term. While each city differs, edge computing will be key in underpinning smart cities, now and in the future, helping to make citizens’ lives easier.

The author is Antonio Bocigas, EMEA telco director at Lenovo.

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