Digital transformation of cities: Creating smart and engaged communities with IoT

Ubiquitous connectivity, AI, distributed computing and blockchain help cities transform their data to actionable intelligence.

smart city - IoT internet of things - wireless network
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What makes a city a “smart city?” Some would argue that it has to do with the degree to which the city is staying abreast of technology advancements, but that is too one-dimensional. Smart cities require an integrated approach to IoT, connectivity, AI, distributed computing and other technologies.

To truly capitalize on smart city technology, technologists must understand the immediate and long-term pain points for city governments; the procurement framework including budgetary and funding issues; and the overall bureaucratic and legislative processes.

An integrated approach to technology implementation – cutting across all departments in the city – can help alleviate specific challenges such as parking management, traffic management, street lighting, energy consumption (and demand response), and public safety.

Gaining traction

The smart city concept has been gaining traction globally for the past decade – however, the United States has lagged behind. Technology has been touted as the solution for every challenge faced by city managers.

The smart city concept involves the implementation of communication and information technology hardware, software and services to improve operational efficiency, drive citizen engagement and quality of life, and identify new revenue sources. Sensors and gateways collect data from infrastructure such as street lighting and traffic management systems and transfer it to the cloud, where it is aggregated, normalized, analyzed and interpreted in real time.

City leaders can use that information to, for example, proactively maintain infrastructure or quickly respond to emergencies.

Success for IoT deployments means breaking down departmental silos

Smart city strategic goals are intertwined: investment in one area is likely to have an impact on other areas. For instance, an IoT solution that reduces traffic congestion is likely to have a direct impact on a city’s environmental objectives. Furthermore, while the strategic goals are much more likely to be similar across several cities, their prioritization may vary. Larger cities are more likely to prioritize traffic management and safety over environmental concerns, which in turn is likely to impact their decision to select and implement specific solutions.

Typically, most smart city initiatives are departmental priorities and data is not shared with other departments in cities. This results in different departments deploying IoT solutions that may not easily integrate and create logistical headaches for IT departments.

So I pose the question – why are city mayors, councils and managers not taking the lead in deploying IoT across the city? One possible reason – IoT deployments take years to implement and ROI may not be visible for many years. This could mean that mayors could lose the next election for spending too much money on something that is not tried and tested.

Distributed computing results in real-time analysis

If cities are to develop solutions that can help alleviate many challenges that improve citizen engagement and overall happiness levels, latency in transmitting data to the cloud is a significant barrier. Data analysis in the cloud means data cannot be analyzed immediately. The speed of information depends on the network and speed available to transmit data – on cellular, wireless or fixed line networks.

To overcome that barrier, we view the availability of improved processors for edge devices and gateways as essential. They enable AI and distributed computing for real-time data analysis and visualization. This enables cities to develop solutions that can help alleviate many challenges that improve citizen engagement and overall happiness levels, resulting in net migration into cities.

Protecting data integrity with blockchain

Data integrity is another potential obstacle for smart cities, and blockchain could hold the key.

The value of blockchain in smart cities is still not completely clear and resembles the hype and lack of clarity on value of cloud computing a decade ago. Vendors and service providers are still trying to figure out how they can leverage blockchain to improve data integrity. The consensus, however, points to blockchain providing that link that can help secure data integrity as it is transmitted from the point of capture to the point of analysis and storage.

End-to-end IoT security is a myth and will never come to fruition. The only way to secure IoT deployments is with a layered approach that involves each and every hardware vendor, software developer and solution provider to secure layers that they can control. Blockchain can be used to strengthen the chain of custody of data and help reduce the points of vulnerability in IoT.

Ubiquitous connectivity ties everything together

Cities will be most impacted by IoT and connecting all devices. The autonomous vehicle is one the most important connected devices that is likely to be available in the next couple of years. Unless each vehicle can communicate without latency with every other vehicle and the infrastructure, do not expect traffic accident rates and deaths to decline. This high speed of data transmission will require cellular networks to roll out 5G sooner rather than later.

Traffic management will require near real-time data transmission from sensors on highways and roadways to help growing cities alleviate traffic bottlenecks. While cities need increased infrastructure spending to expand highways (looking at all large Texas cities), technology can be used as a short-term solution to provide residents with alternative routes to avoid congestion.

The last word

Despite the excitement about smart cities, enormous barriers are likely to slow or stall these initiatives. As I examine the promise and possibilities, I consider the likelihood that these initiatives could be decades from bearing fruit in many of our greatest cities to be a tragedy.

A city is not smart because it is technologically advanced. A city is smart because it uses technology in ways that improve operational efficiency, drive citizen engagement and justify net inward migration into a city. IoT and smart sensors help cities achieve those goals. However, these goals can only be achieved by integrating IoT, connectivity, AI, distributed computing and other technologies, in addition to breaking down silos between departments in a city.

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