The Dos and Don’ts to Building a Smarter City

City Tour Of The "Connected City" Ahead Of Mobile World Congress 2014

Growing urbanization, inadequate infrastructures, declining revenue, and increased environmental challenges are just a few of the issues driving cities around the world to become smart.

To respond to these issues, municipalities are using the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve the fundamentals of city life, like energy, telecommunications, transportation, water, health, and public safety.

According to Jesse Berst, the chairman of the Smart Cities Council, there’s lots of opportunity for cities to use connected people, devices, and things to create efficiencies, cost savings, and better services for citizens. “The IoT is profoundly affecting cities, perhaps more than any other sector, because these urban areas embrace every aspect of life.”

The Smart Cities Council provides a wealth of resources for cities as they embark on the path to becoming smart, but Berst says there are two fundamental aspects driving this journey: the first is an IT and communications foundation, but, perhaps more important, is the right attitude.

“You must have the sensors on the front end and communications in the middle,” Berst says. “Then there are computers on the other end and this is where the real power is. This is where cities can take a tsunami of data that’s collected from all over and make sense of it.”

Berst notes that cities already have a wealth of information from systems such as utilities, traffic, and building management, but they really don’t know what to do with it. Which leads to his second point—attitude.

Right from the very beginning, Berst says, cities must adopt an attitude of integration. “Too many cities have multiple instances of technology, whether it’s networks, databases, analytical tools, or other core elements, none of which talk to each other. The cities are paying for each instance independently, which is a costly and unnecessary expense that can add up to millions of dollars.”

The key is to understand how technology cuts across each department, which will lead to an increased appreciation for the value that can be derived from an integrated approach. “There is a danger is getting technology for technology sake, and this leads to islands of innovation that are incompatible,” Berst says.

Cities can start the integration process by future proofing their designs. “It’s important to avoid narrow use cases,” Berst explains. “It’s best to build cross-departmental task forces that can look at solutions horizontally rather than in vertical silos. An IoT solution can then be architected for different capabilities with a shared infrastructure and data foundation.” For example, a design for an electric grid that’s installed today may be reused in the near future for smart water meters.

Berst emphasizes that it’s important not to trap the data, so a common data architecture is key. This will allow, for instance, both the electrical personnel and the police department to be notified simultaneously of a power outage. Each department can begin working on solutions from their individual perspectives as a result of immediate notifications from a common infrastructure.

Another benefit to an integrated approach is that a cross-departmental future-looking solution will help secure more budget, as costs can be shared.

Dan Murphy, vice president of marketing at ThingWorx, agrees with Berst’s recommendations. “With the large volume of people moving back to urban areas, cities will need to have elasticity to handle the required growth and development to support these expanding populations,” Murphy notes.

“Cities also have to consider that the solution of today may not be the one for the future,” he adds. Murphy suggests going with a common IoT application platform that will provide the innovation needed for today and tomorrow. IoT apps can then be changed or added as needed, whether from department to department or to support future emerging innovation, but the platform will remain constant.

Which cities are adopting a smart IoT approach best? There are many says Berst, but the one that readily comes to mind is Barcelona, which has documented over $3 million in new revenue and savings through its IoT initiatives. Dubai has a goal to be the smartest city in the world and already has 1,000 city apps for citizens. And Madrid is another to watch, says Berst, as it’s taking a very thoughtful approach and creating a platform where the software can readily be reused.

As to a parting recommendation, Berst says it’s important for cities to start small, but think big. He suggests that cities undertake a small project that can be a win, and then build on top of that to achieve the greatest success.

Photo: David Ramos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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