Three obstacles that need to be overcome before smart cities become a true reality

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Smart cities used to be a vision of the future, thought of as a time when connectivity will be omnipresent in all aspects of everyday, metropolitan life. Some still view this as the enabler for a truly smart city, says Peter Clapton, CEO, Vysiion.

But, with the likes of Singapore, Dubai and Oslo already claiming their place as “smart city” pioneers, this begs the question, what really constitutes a smart city?

There are a few different ways that people choose to define the term, but the one I agree with is that a smart city is a city or municipality that informs, protects, and improves the everyday experiences of its citizens. Above all they operate based on the swift acquisition and aggregation of data, the fast assimilation of this information into useful content, and its subsequent dissemination to stakeholders in near real-time, facilitating and improving decision-making.

When thinking about this definition and drilling down into what it truly means, it becomes clear that the places many currently perceive to be smart cities, including the examples I mentioned above, are only the tip of the iceberg. For smart cities to become a reality, there are crucial challenges that governments and businesses are going to come across and need to resolve.

Edging closer to a smart city reality

Smart cities are complex entities made up of hundreds of technology and process components, all required to work in conjunction with one another. Individually, each collects vast amounts of data about their immediate environment, which needs to be collected, processed, and analysed, en masse.

Many believe 5G will be key to realising this vision, and it will of course play a big role in the future of smart cities. But the truth is that, relative to other technology, it is power-hungry, relatively expensive and can be tricky and time-consuming to deploy.

What smart cities need are scalable networks that deploy a hybrid of cost-effective technologies. They need to consider how best to connect disparate sensors to edge compute in support of real-time applications, and the backhaul of informative data to remote data centres.

These edge devices collect data from a city’s key infrastructure, including offices, electricity substations, and transport systems, as well as wider industrial settings. They then aggregate this information and quickly assimilate it into useful insights and valuable content. This can be disseminated to key stakeholders at the ‘edge’ otherwise known as the periphery of networks as an action that will alert or better inform the recipient, or control and allow an automated event.

This “edge” component and real-time capability is key to creating a truly “smart” city. That’s why those involved in the development of smart cities must prioritise the roll-out and implementation of edge technologies now. Real value comes from working with suppliers and integrators who understand edge to core infrastructure, how to bring this disparate, structured and unstructured data together, and provide users with access to high value insights and intelligence.

Smart cities are nothing without their citizens

Another key ingredient of a working smart city is citizen participation, i.e., individuals’ willingness to have their data collected and shared. It’s a process that is reliant on winning their trust, increasingly difficult in an age where individuals are more aware and concerned for the safety of their data.

A crucial starting point to overcoming this challenge involves building a comprehensive data privacy and security strategy into any smart city development, with local governments then responsible for educating individuals and society on how their data will be stored, who has access, and how it can be used.

It should be part of the equation right from the word “go”. Without it, governments and developers risk damaging public trust, especially at the beginning of such projects, which could impact the long-term success of smart cities. The NHS COVID-19 app is a good example of this once people lacked trust in the application, it took only a matter of days for thousands of people to delete it. Once that happened, the data it collected became much less meaningful and representative.

Cyber security experts therefore have an integral role to play in engineering and embedding security management systems that mandate the movement of data collected from “zero trust edge devices” onto secure IT platforms as soon as it’s generated.

Too many cooks

Every element of a smart city needs to be maintained, and at some stage, repaired. Technology cannot simply be implemented and forgotten about. But the question is, who will take responsibility for and fund it?

Peter Clapton

The answer comes naturally for some technologies. For example, councils will undoubtedly own technologies such as flood warning systems and retain responsibility for other consumer-facing deployments such as intelligent and integrated traffic systems. The latter will also be heavily influenced by blue light services, who will need to be able to override red lights to ensure their progress when dealing with emergencies.

Other technologies though are a little tricker to pin down. Private enterprises and utilities, for example, will have an increasing play in smart infrastructure as they look to anticipate footfall, EV charging requirements and demand for power.

This all means that data collected by public enterprises and authorities needs to be made available to all for a truly “smart” experience, adding to the issue of security and data privacy. With many cooks in the kitchen, it becomes even more challenging to communicate to citizens exactly where their data is and who can access it.

Cities are about to get smarter

Despite us being some way off seeing a fully smart city in action, some huge advancements have been made and there are many businesses making very exciting progress in this space. 

We cannot get carried away though. As with any major development in technology, there are still some crucial obstacles that need to be overcome. So, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s make sure we have the fundamentals right, edge to core, security, and ownership.

The author is Peter Clapton, CEO, Vysiion.

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