The Smart City of the Future (Fun Fact: Many are Here Today)

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 18 Apr 2019

After a decade of experimentation and prototyping, the smart city has entered a new phase. Digital transformation of government has enabled new capabilities that are now being interconnected and extended. Residents, where ever they live, have a readily-available smart city control device, namely their smartphone. Highly-efficient and easily-controllable LED lighting is being installed throughout the country and the world at an accelerating rate. Video cameras have become pervasive. Almost every city has begun introducing convenient data access apps like those for commuter rails, parking meters, directions and road conditions, emergency alerts, and utility information.  

Smart city technology is improving safety, reducing expenses, increasing resiliency, providing whole-new services, and in general improve living conditions. To be specific, McKinsey Global Institute projects that moving to the smart city concept is reducing fatalities by 8–10 percent, accelerating emergency response times by 20–35 percent, shaving average commutes by 15–20 percent, lowering disease burden by 8–15 percent, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 percent, among other positive outcomes.

These are some of the classes of benefits smart cities deliver.

  • Resident services that involve access to data
  • Safety / crime reduction / health-related services that make use of surveillance, alarms, and calls for help
  • Traffic flow management
  • Public transportation scheduling and optimization
  • Municipal expense reduction
  • Services and assistance for the disabled
  • Energy conservation
  • Resiliency to natural and national disasters
  • Recent additions include connected bicycles and electric-vehicle charging stations

Beyond the economic, safety, and convenience benefits, smart cities also help the environment. One example of this is the Baltimore Open Air project that involves monitoring climate variables of the city including temperature, humidity, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide to reduce air pollution.

What’s Driving Smart Cities?

The Internet of Things (IoT), smartphones, and big data are three factors that have combined to unleash the smart city concept. Relatively low-cost sensors and cameras can now be easily located around the city to provide real-time data collection on local conditions. On the control side, LED lighting, water flow control, remotely-controlled traffic lights, municipal building heating and cooling, pedestrian displays, and power distribution have all become important for implementing the smart city.

The network that connects these devices and capabilities is perhaps the most important component. The interconnecting infrastructure must be reliable, robust, secure, maintainable, high performance, and capable of accommodating future requirements. In smart cities that involve large-scale IoT deployments there can be hundreds of thousands of mobile and IoT devices connecting to the network. The potential attack surface is significant, and vulnerabilities must be protected against. A network that provides hyper-segmentation combined with native stealth is vital for limiting the visibility of the network to reduce attack opportunities.

“The City’s vision is to use technology to tackle some of our most difficult challenges, from pollution and traffic to health and public safety. As we move toward that future, we need a robust, secure, software-driven infrastructure that can interface with third-party solutions, and provide a path to automation. The solutions that Extreme provides are instrumental in making our city one of the smartest in America.” Michael Rodriguez, CIO, City of Memphis

Flexibility is an important factor for successful smart city implement. A key finding of the Gartner report, Predicts 2019: Smart Cities Will Mitigate Social and Resilience Risks and Reward Digital Opportunities is that “Smart city strategies continue to evolve. So city governments’ approach to technology and data orchestration must be flexible and allow them to adjust to changing demand and vendors.” Laying the right infrastructure can ensure that as the need for video and other sensors throughout the city grows, your network will securely accommodate it.

One of the greatest challenges facing smart cities is interoperability and standardization since there are many related systems that must work together. This requires a common language to communicate across cities and across countries, such as Open 311, a communication standard that is used in more than thirty cities in the world.

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Smart Cities Can Be Fun, Too

The interactive capabilities enabled by IoT sensors and actuators enable resident services limited only by imagination. Sometimes creativity can go a long way to attracting interest and involvement. It can often be hard to predict the best way to draw residents in so that they can learn about the full range of smart city capabilities. Boston was successful in attracting interest with an interactive Christmas tree and a menorah that involved 720 LED lights colors that residents could change via smartphone, by using Twitter #wickedcooltree. Another seemingly-playful app is Smell My City, which crowdsources reports of pollution odors, because “foul odors are typical symptoms of a serious pollution problem.”

We wanted flying cars, but all we got was 140 characters.

That famous quote by Peter Thiel certainly seems to express disappointment. When he said those words back in 2011, Thiel was asking what had happened to the future; had innovation slowed? What he didn’t realize was just how important those 140 characters were becoming to city residents; offering value perhaps more useful than flying cars. Cities are now using Twitter (the instantiation of “140 characters”) to receive emergency requests for help and to report hazardous conditions. Many cities have an @311 system for receiving and tracking road repair requests. Here’s how nine cities use Twitter to improve communication with residents.

Regarding flying cars, low-cost drones are likely to fill their need and satisfy most of their utility, including package deliver, providing eyes in the sky for situational awareness, even delivering emergency assistance. But, if your heart is really set on flying cars, cheer up – they are almost here.

[The Ehang 184 “autonomous aerial vehicle” can transport one passenger and their bag for up to 23 minutes]

The Darker Side of Smart Cities

The collection and responsible sharing of vital data can provide new conveniences to residents, such as the real-time reporting of services, traffic conditions, and waiting times, but there is a potential downside to amassing data associated with automobiles and individuals that would normally be considered private. Massachusetts has been capturing via camera and storing the license plate numbers of every vehicle entering and leaving Cape Cod over the last three years. While authorities say the technology helps to track or locate suspects in cases involving violent crime and drug trafficking, or to find missing and abducted people, everyone hopes that data is protected and cannot fall into the wrong hands.

Protecting the privacy and security of smart city data requires a network that is immune to cyberattack and provides visibility into all active applications, users, and devices. Fabric-based networks with strong network access control and network analytics provide that secure environment.

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