City 2.0: Using tech building blocks in tomorrow's urban centers

It's closer than you may think and is mostly a matter of connecting all the pieces

No, cars aren't flying around quite yet -- but ubiquitous wireless networks, the smart energy grid and city-provided social networks are definitely ready.

Science fiction writers call it Utopia, the glorious City of the Future. But short of downtown atriums being guarded by invisible walls and flying cars, City 2.0 is not as far off as you may think.

Ubiquitous wireless networks are already available in cities including Baltimore and Minneapolis, corporations such as Thomson Reuters have sustainable data centers that sell power back to the local utility, the smart energy grid is well on its way, and city-provided social networks are common. Indeed, the next steps toward the city of tomorrow are all about integrating these services cohesively, making them widely available across the entire metropolis and managing the services more efficiently.

"The reality is that the city of the future will likely have many aspects of a contained and managed ecosystem," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst with Enderle Group based in San Jose, Calif.

While the concept of City 2.0 is monumental, these key technology advancements are already helping pave the road to the next-generation city.

Smart grid

The smart use of energy is one of the most important goals for urban centers today. The smart grid concept centers around the idea of using electricity when it's available cheaply, rather than at peak times when it's more expensive, and allows wind and solar and other renewable sources to be integrated into the energy grid. This requires two-way communication between utility companies and the businesses and individuals who use their power. We're nowhere near a comprehensive smart grid yet, but some cities and energy companies are taking steps in that direction.

Today, a few cities, such as Boulder, Colo. and Houston, have pilot programs where customers can visit a Web site to see their real-time energy usage. Google is currently testing a PowerMeter project so employees can see not only how much energy they're using, but when and for what. EnerNOC, a provider of IP-based sensors and monitoring, is giving financial incentives to customers and utility companies that adjust supply and demand according to real-time data.

A good example of smart grid technology in action is at the Des Moines, Iowa state capitol grounds, where city officials have set up a smart grid that feeds to a central kiosk. It shows the power usage for each building in the capitol complex. To create the smart grid, the capitol buildings were wired with sensors that connect a fiber backbone, feed through a central server and then report usage data in real time to the kiosk.

"Today, departments have no incentive to save power from a government perspective," says State CIO John Gillispie. "We are working toward billing the individual departments for how much they use."

Gillispie is already planning on adding sensors for floor-level power monitoring, and envisions a day when sensors are added across the state and in multiple cities -- even on roadways and in cars, office buildings, schools and homes.

City-centric social networking

We're all familiar by now with using public social networks to catch up with friends and family or even to find a job, but wouldn't it be nice if your city had a social network where you could keep abreast of local developments and weigh in on neighborhood issues?

In Dublin, Ohio, the city operates a Novell Teaming portal where government officials can run blogs, chat over instant messaging and share documents. In the next few months, the city plans to make the private network available to all citizens. In a future city scenario, a social network like this could allow residents to submit ideas for city improvements, chat with politicians and blog about their neighborhood over a secure and city-centric portal that caters to their local needs.

San Jose, Calif., is one of the most high-tech cities in the U.S. Over the next few years, the city will create a social network on Wikiplanning that helps citizens learn about the city, chat over instant messaging, complete surveys and download city podcasts.

"Frequently, only small groups of residents come to public meetings, and in the case of a multiple meeting project, it's largely the same group of citizens who continue to participate," says Kim Walesh, San Jose's chief strategist. "Participation by small groups may not offer a good representation of the community as a whole. An advantage of Wikiplanning is that activities can be done day or night at the user's convenience, allowing for far greater participation by people in the workforce."

WiMax and citywide wireless

The concept of readily available wireless service has been around the block a few times, so to speak. Cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago have tried to provide Wi-Fi access without too much success. Minneapolis is one of the few large cities that have deployed Wi-Fi successfully.

In Portland, a Wi-Fi network didn't fare so well either, but a WiMax project seems to be off to a much stronger start.

WiMax, widely seen as the next generation of mobile data access after Wi-Fi, stalled over the past few years due to the complexity of the technology, changes in partnerships and reluctance on the part of city officials to adopt an emerging technology. Even so, WiMax promises more ubiquitous access than Wi-Fi, because Wi-Fi hot spots require users to seek them out but WiMax is available throughout a given area. WiMax requires fewer base stations across the metropolis, at a lower infrastructure cost, using licensed spectrum that does not interfere with other wireless LANs.

Tim Sweeney, a product manager at Intel, says the prospects of WiMax for cities are high because it means greater bandwidth for city services.

"Wi-Fi was never intended to support a wide area; it is really for inside buildings," he says. Sweeney gave a future city scenario where cars report their fuel tank levels over WiMax, gas stations bid on the cost of fuel, and an electric car communicates with a smart grid about its energy usage -- whether an alternative route would save on power used.

Sustainable data center

Sustainability is a key part of future cities. The idea is that a highly efficient, well-monitored and "green" data center could allow a city to realize major energy-savings benefits. It would also lead to being able to use data centers for most city services, not just for computing. For example, a single city data center could provide services for government and monitor automobile traffic in city streets. Today, these functions are wildly disparate and difficult to consolidate.

According to Enderle, most city services are not connected to each other today, but some individual components such as electrical usage in government buildings already have the sensors required for monitoring city services. At some point in the next 10 years, cities will need to decide when patching an aging infrastructure no longer makes sense and will instead start using more modern technology, Enderle says. In a sustainable data center model, city services could be part of a vast "network of networks" that monitors real-time power, water, wireless and data usage for all citizens.

One example of how this sustainability could be tied to city services is at Thomson Reuters, a news and information gathering service that operates 100,000 square feet of multiple data centers for its Westlaw division in Eagan, Minn. Rick King, the global head of technology and operations, has designed operations with close ties to the local Dakota Electric utility.

The company has about 900 batteries in one data center and four diesel generators in another, which it uses as a backup for power delivered by the local utility. The company also has two massive diesel fuel tanks. Today, the company uses the batteries for short bursts (about 15 minutes) of backup power and can use its generators for a day or two as needed, allowing the local utility to sell the unused power.

Enterprise IT today serves as an excellent example of how future cities could operate. Thomson Reuters monitors 15,000 IT assets such as servers and storage arrays in real time in a central operations center, and the power usage is controlled automatically -- when the diesel generators are needed, they start up on their own. Extending this model to a city could mean that power companies are highly connected, and home owners could even see their own usage at the individual appliance level to be able to adjust usage patterns, tying back into the notion of the previously mentioned smart grid.

How the cloud ties it all together

It's easy to see how the cloud could contribute to future cities. There might be a central command center for monitoring and adjusting power usage and for providing IT services over WiMax, but the actual IT operation could be "in the cloud" and abstracted from a physical data center.

Yankee Group calls this the Anywhere initiative, which is partly about making mobility in a city infrastructure more flexible, efficient and scalable. In this model, anything can be an end point, including portable gadgets, your vehicle, an office building and your home.

Jeffrey Breen, chief technology officer at the Yankee Group, says that the IP-based, packet-switched cloud model in the enterprise can apply to city infrastructure -- that is, as a vast, interconnected smart grid and social network with widespread and reliable wireless access. Mobile citizens would be a click away from city services.

"One way or another, we will get to the point in cities where anyone who wants high-speed access will get it -- and the city won't have to worry about the details of how," says Breen.

A highly connected city with smart grids, widely available wireless access and a sustainable data center is well within reach. Over the next 20 years, cities in the U.S. and abroad will likely take these and other steps toward the goal, building the infrastructure with a view towards better connectivity and better living.

John Brandon is a veteran of the computing industry, having worked as an IT manager for ten years and a tech journalist for another ten. He has written over 2,000 feature articles. He is a regular contributor to Computerworld .

This story, "City 2.0: Using tech building blocks in tomorrow's urban centers" was originally published by Computerworld.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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