What’s Smart About a Smart City?
Ask ten people to explain what a ‘smart city’ is and you’ll probably get ten different answers. It can seem like an abstract term for some. Yet, the benefits are anything but abstract.
We’re living in a time like no other:
- Inflation rates are soaring, so everybody is looking to save money.
- The pandemic is still with us, so the reliance on technology has never been so great.
- The planet is crying out to be saved, so the need to take climate change action has never been so urgent.
These are three examples of modern-day challenges we’re now faced with solving. Economic. Social. Environmental.
Three problems that smart cities can help to remedy. And that’s what’s smart about them.
What do we mean by a smart city?
The objective of a smart city is to help solve the everyday challenges that communities face. From improving local transport services – to banishing high crime rate hotspots.
A smart city is an entire geographical area that’s completely connected.
The physical ‘wires’ that link everything and everyone together is a ‘whole-region’ fibre network that’s complemented by wireless connectivity.
Hardware (e.g. sensors) and software (e.g. apps) is connected to the physical infrastructure.
These devices and apps use data on the network to automate real-time action. For example, a sensor that detects that too many people are waiting at a bus stop and instigates a status announcement as a result, or even increases bus frequency.
What is it like to be in a smart city?
To help bring to life what it might be like to occupy a smart city, picture this scene.
You’re driving your car, on your way to a business meeting within a smart city.
In parallel, an IoT (Internet of Things) device physically attached to the local water network has identified a flood. This has triggered the traffic lights to automatically re-route your journey.
Meanwhile, the water company – who received an automatic notification of the incident – is on their way to deal with the flooded road. They can already see the extent and impact of the flood, because smart cameras are providing live video feeds to their control room.
In parallel, the inhabitants of the smart city have automatically received messages to alert them to the problem.
As a result of this incident, your device is now telling you where alternative car parking spaces are available in a new location, and has proactively reserved one for you en-route.
What stops cities being smart?
The above example paints the perfect picture of complete technology integration across one geographical region. That’s the aspiration: the creation of an island of intelligence!
In reality, this capability still only exists in silos today. Yes, there are smart “initiatives” in the UK making great strides to improve pockets of life. But, not across the entire city life.
There are devices and apps collecting lots of data and doing smart things on their own merits. However, the data isn’t being shared to generate greater benefits across communities. In other words, the devices and apps aren’t talking to one another. And that’s what makes them smart.
Physical infrastructure is the enabler for smart cities to happen. Stuart McNeil, our chief information officer, says: “Smart cities demand city wide fast connectivity delivered by properly designed and installed fibre networks, with wireless providing only the final link to sensors if necessary.”
“If you imagine a city where millions of people live and work, where IoT devices are connected to everything, collecting and processing city-wide data insights – that could never be delivered by wireless alone.”
“It requires long-term vision to overcome capital outlay hurdles. Where investors expect returns in 30 years’ time. Not in three to five years like many of today’s communications providers might hope for. Think of it like building road networks or bridges that stand the test of time.
“Encouragingly, some city leaders are now taking a more pragmatic approach. They recognise that if you’re going to dig up a city to provide fibre to every premise, it’s more cost-effective to connect other things at the same time. For example, if a stormwater sewer line is three feet away, then let’s connect sensors on that too.”
To build a smart city, the physical infrastructure, the technology, the devices, and the data – plus the rights to that data – require full collaboration between councils, businesses, and residents.
It can be challenging, but not impossible, to reach city-level agreement when so many stakeholders need to be considered and consulted.
Smart cities make economic, social and environmental sense
Smart cities are smart because they deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits. The UK government recognises this and is supporting smart city development. It says smart city projects: “… raise productivity, create jobs, improve safety, provide environmental benefits, and make public services more efficient and accessible.”
A city that can adapt to its inhabitants and surroundings in real-time, is a much more efficient one. It uses fewer resources and costs less to run.
Take streetlighting for example. If smart sensors that detect motion, trigger streetlighting to be turned up, it reduces cost and energy consumption. From a social perspective, those same smart streetlights can improve public safety too.
Why a city-level approach is a smart move
The traditional approach to designing and deploying fibre networks has encouraged communications providers to get the most revenue they can out of the end-user of that network.
This encourages them to widen the digital divide by focussing on short-term gains from pockets of a community. This is at odds with city-level fibre design.
Stuart adds: “The smart approach is to look at the benefits that fibre networks can deliver at a city level. It’s also about moving away from thinking that smart is only concerned with enabling communication. When in actual fact, it’s about connecting everyone with everything. From the storm drains outside a house, to the traffic lights on a road.”
We are NetPMD
We design, install, and integrate fibre networks that enable smart cities to operate optimally in the modern world. As our name suggests, we offer you independent project management and design expertise, to help you close the digital divide in your communities.