Talk about Smart Cities seems to be a hot topic at many of the conferences I have attended in the past year.  What is driving this interest? Is it technology? Economic issues? Energy Concerns? Other? From what I have seen it is a little bit of all – but it has definitely gained momentum since the publication of the United Nations’ State of the World Population 2011 report, which stated that the global population is expected to grow from 7 billion in 2011 to 9.3 billion by 2050 and as high as 15 billion by 2100.

Along with this expected rise in population is the continued migration from rural areas to urban areas and the creation of huge population centers referred to as “urban agglomerations”, but perhaps better known as “mega-cities”. According to the same report, 50 percent of the worlds’ population currently lives in urban areas and within 35 years this will grow to 67 percent, putting unprecedented demand on infrastructure, energy consumption and services. As such, innovation in urban design, technologies, and services.cities need to become smarter in order to remain sustainable.

Combine these predictions with the rapid evolution of technology and the need for sustainable energy to meet the rising demand and the necessity for Smart Cities starts to become obvious.

What is a “Smart City”?

Personally, when I think of a smart city – I picture those cities illustrated in Star Wars or other futuristic movies, but that is not realistic – except perhaps in Dubai or other very modern cities. For most of the world, the goal is simply to make our existing cities better and more intelligent.

There is no singular definite for a “Smart City” - although they all share a similar vision where intelligent systems and information (ICT) are implemented to increase efficiency and productivity; reduce the carbon footprint and improve the quality of life for its citizens across multiple facets which include Planning and Management, Human and Infrastructure.

Smart Cities take planning – a lot of it - and the approach will vary depending on each cities stage of development, location, culture, demographics and motivation.

According to research conducted by Alcatel-Lucent – they found three main motivators for smart city projects:

  1. An economic motivator reflecting the need to construct or invent a new economic model.
  2. An eco-sustainability motivator reflecting the need or desire to reduce energy consumption.
  3. A social motivator reflecting the need to improve the quality of life in a city environment.
And although one motivator may be more dominant, aspects of each will play a role in all smart city projects.

Regardless of the motivator, a clear vision and communications of goals along with active participation from key stakeholders is critical for smart city implementation.

The Importance of ICT for Smart City

The evolution to a Smart City is not just about technology – although its role is foundational - as ICT often acts as the central nervous system in helping make a city smarter. ICT powers the delivery of new and better public services, brings efficiency gains and cost reduction and is instrumental to achieving a lower carbon economy. In addition, it can enable a range of socio-economic benefits such as e-health, e-education, e-government, etc.

Although there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the required ICT – there are a number of common elements including implementation of all-IP network core network that can integrate wired and wireless technologies to create a converged infrastructure in support of high-speed Internet services; smart meters, intelligent transport systems as well as monitoring and sensor technologies can help enable advanced services and applications and achieve carbon-neutral footprints. As expected machine-to-machine (M2M) solutions will be instrumental.

M2M is the technology that establishes intelligent communication between things providing online data gathering, remote control and process automation. By using sensors embedded in a wide range of systems serving the public — such as a traffic lights, public transport vehicles or parking spaces — M2M technology can report on the status of the system being monitored via the Internet in real-time  and enable intelligent, real-time decision-making for an array of services.

As such, both service providers and ICT equipment vendors will provide critical expertise in the development of smart cities through their knowledge of building, secure and reliable network infrastructures, and managing and delivering large volumes of data over these protected networks. Key participation will likely include:

  • Connectivity/managed connectivity – connecting city infrastructure and individuals to central servers and databases;
  • Data aggregation/analysis – combining data from multiple sources to produce new insights;
  • Service delivery – delivering real-time information to people and machines that will enable them to adapt and respond to events in the city;
  • Customer interface - providing customer support operations, such as call centers and web portals, as well as delivering messages to subscribers.

Mobile Technology is A Fundamental Enabler to Smart Cities

Mobile technology has become a fundamental enabler of smart cities through the continuing evolution of devices, computing, applications and solutions, as were demonstrated at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

According to the GSMA – mobile operators are taking an active role in smart city projects.  Out of the 150 smart cities the GSMA tracks globally, more than 100 cities have deployed services (beyond smartphone apps) that make use of mobile networks. The GSMA has identified 232 mobile products and services that fall into four main categories: Transport, Environment/Energy, Municipal Projects, and Economic stimulus and open data, with Europe taking a leading role in its implementation.

Transport represents 99 projects globally, which include ticketing applications (50), intelligent transport systems (29), and traffic information systems (20). The next largest category is Environment/energy representing 95 projects globally, including smart metering projects (74), electric vehicles and charging infrastructure (14) and renewables projects (7).

There is no lack of examples of smart applications of technology but as someone who has driven in circles to find parking in a city – this one caught my eye.

SFpark (San Francisco) collects and distributes real-time information about where parking is available so drivers can quickly find open spaces using an app on their smartphone. In addition, SFpark periodically adjusts meter and garage pricing up and down to match demand and help achieve the right level of parking availability. Demand-responsive pricing encourages drivers to park in underused areas and garages, reducing demand in overused areas. In this transport application, real-time data and demand-responsive pricing work together to readjust parking patterns in the City so that parking is easier to find.

Collaboration is Key

All these great applications are great, but without collaboration and active involvement across its citizens, NGOs, public, and private sectors – it is doomed to fail. Technology is an enabler, but it can’t do it all on its own.

One example is Envision Charlotte (Charlotte, North Carolina) – which is a collaborative partnership among major employers, building owners and managers along with municipal and technology leaders to create a sustainable urban core in the nation by connecting numerous environmental programs and initiatives through smart energy/water and air programs.

Europe Takes the Lead, Reduces the Risk for Communications

In 2012, the European Commission announced its Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership with the focus of boosting development of smart technologies in cities by pooling research resources from energy, transport and ICT and concentrating them on a small number of demonstration projects which will be implemented in partnership with cities. For 2013 alone, € 365 million in EU funds have been earmarked for the demonstration of solutions in four key areas: Smart buildings and neighborhood projects; Smart supply and demand service projects; Urban mobility projects; and Smart and sustainable digital infrastructures.

Additionally, the EC has established the Smart Cities Stakeholders Platform which provides extensive information such as best practices, toolkits; solution proposals which enable users to find smart city solutions suitable to their city. Key segmentation includes climate, topography, population; density, etc.

Given the wide range of cities within the EU - solutions derived from these projects should have a beneficial impact to the global market.

And while it is unlikely that we will be living in cities like those represented in Star Wars in the near future – we should definitely expect to see continued improvement in how we live, work and play.