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Internet of Things Part 7: What Exactly is a Smart City?

By Don DeLoach • March 14, 2014

This is the seventh in the series on the Top 10 area to probe when considering the Internet of Things.

When you think of a “Smart City” what exactly comes to mind? For me, I think of Cambridge in the UK. As a university town, there are lots of students and professors. People tend to engage in spirited and thoughtful conversations over chai latte’s at Costa Coffee speaking with British accents that just sound smart.

I grew up in Atlanta and spent a great deal of time in the deep south. When I think of smart cities, I don’t really think of Macon, Georgia (no offense intended) where the conversations tend to be more about the plight of the Georgia Bulldogs and the accents don’t seem nearly as sophisticated. Then again, as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. Some of the smartest people (and technologists) I know have that very deceptive Southern accent and I have encountered more than one elegant sounding Brit that made my head explode with comments that seemed insane. This, is usually magnified one hundred times at  an England vs. Germany “football” match. Good fun, but not exactly the picture of a ‘Smart City”.

Here’s the thing: smart cities are not about libraries or lectures, accents, athletics, or even attitudes. They are most certainly about technology. They are also about collaboration. Government and businesses, entrepreneurs and academia, and the people themselves all need to work together to get there. The Internet of Things can make many dumb (often inanimate) objects “smart”. This is all the better when at times you combine the “smart” things with smart(er) people. Smart cities are cities that are fundamentally instrumented to collect massive amounts of data about a wide variety of “things” going on in the city, then correlating that information in meaningful ways to make the city better. And by better, I mean the city should function better, with better services, with better information, and at lower cost and higher efficiency and effectiveness for its people. That’s smart. And that’s good. But if it is so smart and so good, why aren’t all cities smart right now?

Good question, right?

Smart cities take time, money and collaboration. This is, fundamentally, an investment in infrastructure. Some cities will see the benefit and invest for the long term more readily than others. There are some great, albeit small examples of this now. For instance, there are some good initiatives underway in Barcelona, Malaga, Dubai and several other cities in Asia.

The city I am personally most impressed with is Amsterdam. They currenty have 42 projects spread across five central themes. While I am not going to detail this here, I would strong suggest exploring this at their website. The list and description of the projects are really cool, ranging from energy to health to traffic and more. What also jumps off the page is the very progressive and extremely collaborate approach they are taking. The other key element is that each of these projects seems to be taking a “walk before we run” approach, which allows them to learn and iterate, which I think is fantastic.

Realistically, in many cities or jurisdictions, part of the reluctance to invest is the political climate. Without straying too far afield, and not in any way intending this to become a political commentary, it if fair to say that political jurisdictions (globally) that have a strong bias toward minimizing any short term spending (as well as revenue, via taxation) will be reluctant to readily invest the capital to upgrade the infrastructure to become “smart”. This may include things like smart signs that can “talk” to cars, pressure sensors under roadways and “listeners” at intersections. It might involve readers that can pull information off vehicle ID tags to monitor traffic patterns and the rate of traffic flow. It may involve massive video monitoring and the auto interpretation of video streams into specific logs with queryable information. It may include environmental sensors detecting certain hazardous gasses or other substances. It will ultimately include an incredible amount of data of a very wide variety. I personally think reluctance to begin investing in the infrastructure is a mistake, as the cities that offer these type of advanced services enhance the quality of life for businesses and individuals alike and will likely attract more people and businesses over time. Those investments should pay dividends. In the meantime, there will certainly be the leaders, like Amstredam, who set the stage by proving, perhaps one small step at a time, what a smart city can truly be.

So one day, probably not that far away, when the city is approaching gridlock because England is playing Germany at Wembley Stadium, the traffic system will “know” about the congestion and alert the cars and sequence the lights and optimize the on-road traffic as well as the public transportation system based on the load. It will further “know” that if it’s raining, there may be certain hotspots that need to be monitored, which will change as the weather changes. Emergency Vehicles will be positioned in locations based on predictive models contemplating the congestion and the weather. It may also predict the number of fans that may leave the stadium needing to take public transport home in lieu of their cars because they did too much of their own refueling during the match, so the transport system reaches out to the local taxies to advise them of the heavier loads coming home by train and has them expecting more pickups at the Maidenhead Station. Smart cities will not care about accents or personal bias. They will care about technology and the ability to enhance the quality of life for all.

Cheers to that.

Get Bloor Group’s whitepaper ‘Exploiting the Internet of Things’.


Read the next blog in the Internet of Things Blog Series: The Future of Energy Delivery

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