Exploring the Future of Urban Living: Key Takeaways from the Smart City Expo


At the Smart City World Expo in Barcelona, the buzz of excitement was palpable, as a staggering 25,300 attendees from 800 cities and 132 countries gathered to explore the forefront of urban innovation. This global convergence underscored the widespread commitment to transforming our urban environments through cutting-edge technology. Amidst this melting pot of ideas and cultures, two themes stood out as particularly pivotal: Digital Twins and Data Ecosystems. This blog shares insights from the Expo, spotlighting technologies and startups poised to leapfrog the competition in crafting the cities of tomorrow.

Digital Twins and Data Ecosystems are the hottest Topics

Digital twins and data ecosystems are revolutionizing how cities are planned, built, and managed. By creating high-fidelity digital copies of physical environments, digital twins enable city planners and decision-makers to simulate, analyze, and optimize various aspects of urban life. This technology supports better decision-making by providing a comprehensive view of how cities function in real-time, allowing for scenario planning and the prediction of future outcomes. As these digital replicas integrate data from IoT devices, GIS, and other sources, they form the backbone of smart cities, enhancing urban infrastructure, public services, and environmental sustainability.

An exciting startup building a visually appealing digital twin is MetaWorldX. You can check out the digital twin of the City of Toronto on their website.

However, various exhibitors presented many more digital twin projects and solutions at the Expo. One example would be the EU-funded RESIST project, where 12 European regions simulate and test adaptation solutions to key climate change impacts like floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and soil erosion. Also noteworthy is Barcelona’s use of Supercomputers at their Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS) to create digital twins of various city functions, which enables them to understand where citizens can reach a hospital within 15 min walking distance, measure low emissions zones, and more.

European Mobility Data Space (EMDS)

The European Mobility Data Space (EMDS) is a strategic initiative to foster innovation, competitiveness, and digital transformation within the EU’s mobility and transport sector. It’s designed to ensure compliance with EU mobility and transport legislation, facilitate secure data sharing, and develop innovative applications to improve sustainable urban mobility.

The deployEMDS project has been initiated to build a working prototype for an EMDS. Led by ACATECH and involving EIT Urban Mobility, along with over 40 European entities, it aims to develop the EMDS to innovate services and support policymaking for sustainable urban mobility. It focuses on creating an operational Data Space for secure, controlled data sharing in machine-readable formats across nine cities and regions. This initiative seeks to enhance urban and regional mobility through improved data availability and reusability.

The diverse consortium of involved partners implements 17 use cases across nine European cities and regions, aiming to create and deploy an operational data space with a common technical infrastructure. One example use case, which will be developed with the city of Barcelona, focuses on establishing a data space designed to manage diverse bus tracking and monitoring data. This data management occurs across a regional, multi-operator platform provided by the local public transport authority (PTA), designed to improve public transport operators’ digitalization and operational efficiency while maintaining their autonomous fleet management.

While EMDS is a newer initiative, other projects have been working on similar concepts for quite a while now. For example, the Big Data Value Association is an industry-driven research and innovation organization consisting of 240 members. They aim to standardize how industry, academia, and government utilize their data. Their mission is to develop an innovation ecosystem that enables data-driven and AI-enabled digital transformation of the economy and society in Europe.

If you are asking yourself how companies, cities, and other government bodies can share and reuse their data, look at FIWARE. They are spearheading the development of standards for secure and interoperable data ecosystems in smart cities. By facilitating the collection and sharing of various types of data within a secure framework, FIWARE is addressing one of the critical challenges in realizing the full potential of smart cities. Their work ensures that data from different sources can be seamlessly integrated, shared, and utilized to improve city operations, enhance public services, and foster innovation within a secure, privacy-preserving environment.

We have already started seeing German cities adopting these standards, and AWS has even set up a toolset called Garnet to explore those concepts.

Connect a City's "Nervous System"

The Smart City's “Nervous System” comprises sensors and actuators, allowing it to detect relevant environmental changes and respond appropriately.

The integration of the city’s nervous system is achieved through the intelligent fusion of LoRaWan, Wi-Fi, and 5G technologies, establishing a robust and versatile connectivity framework for urban environments. LoRaWAN technology plays a crucial role in smart city IoT connectivity. Its long-range, low-power capabilities make it ideal for deploying sensors that can operate for up to 10 years on a single battery, providing a cost-effective solution for gathering critical data across cities. The technology’s utility in managing assets, monitoring environmental conditions, and enhancing public safety exemplifies its importance in building connected, efficient, and safer urban environments.

Imagine the smart city as a vast neural network—a digital nervous system interconnecting every facet of urban life. Within this neural web, communication protocols buzz like synapses, transmitting data between people, streets, buildings, and infrastructure. From the diverse technologies on show in Barcelona, a single technology has not “won” this discussion. Data architects for smart cities are selecting the right building blocks —LoRaWAN, NB-IoT, Sigfox, Zigbee, Wi-Fi HaLow — and working on solutions. It’s a dynamic puzzle where complexity isn’t a barrier; it’s an invitation to invent.

Let’s look at a few examples demonstrating how municipalities use LoRaWAN-based sensors today. First, a company called greenmetrics.ai implements an early flood detection system for the city of Lisbon, Portugal. They utilize LiDAR technology to measure the height of water streams with high precision, which allows monitoring the effects of concentrated rainfall in hydrographic basins and unusual variations of water height which can then trigger alerts to the city’s authorities.

Second, Heyliot deployed its sensor within 45 municipalities in France, which allows for waste management optimization. When waste containers are full, people leave their garbage outside, and the city of Saumur Val de Loire wanted to avoid these overflows. Also, the monitoring solution allows for optimal collection, especially from the drop-off points on the city's outskirts.

Third, the LACROIX Group offers sensors that are easily attached to any poles (e.g., telephone poles, electric poles, etc.) and report their status in real time. If a pole is tilted, or even breaks, for example due to a storm, the operator gets alerted. This reduces costs as maintenance crews don’t need to inspect poles visually. In addition, if a service outage occurs due to a fallen pole, the operator immediately knows which pole must be fixed, including its location.

These are just a few of the many emerging solutions built to take advantage of an increasingly networked and sensor-rich urban environment. However, with all of this data collection comes concerns about privacy and how data is used.

Data Privacy in Smart Cities

The challenge of data privacy in smart cities revolves around collecting and using data in ways that benefit inhabitants without compromising their security or privacy. Ensuring data privacy requires robust policies, secure technologies, and transparent practices that protect individuals’ information while leveraging data for the public good. This involves a delicate balance between utilizing data to enhance city services and infrastructure and safeguarding citizens' personal privacy. The aforementioned standard implemented by FIWARE provides a set of tools to protect the confidentiality of data and manage authorization and governance.

However, there are many types of datasets that cities intentionally share publicly so that their citizens and other cities can benefit from those insights. An example that I find helpful and insightful is the data about car crashes in the Town of Cary, North Carolina.

My advice: avoid the car crash hotspot at the crossing of Meeting Street and Caitboo Avenue 😉

More Innovative Startups

You might have encountered machine learning (ML) algorithms when browsing Netflix’s movie recommendations that are customized to your viewing habits. But what if you feed an ML algorithm with satellite imagery, historical city maps, and governmental data? You could get access to precise forecasts of urban developments to make well-informed and sustainable decisions. Or predict population shifts and gentrification at building-level resolution, split by age and gender. Maybe even see where construction is likely to happen in the city, taking zoning plans and regulatory information into account.

Most people aren’t eager to have drones equipped with video cameras fly over their gardens while they sunbathe, but what if you use them to oversee the construction progress of new buildings or to inspect the safety of an old bridge? A startup company, ARTIAL, is building AI-driven software to help construction and infrastructure companies collect better data and enhance decision-making processes using drones.

One of my favorite approaches to making existing buildings more sustainable comes from a startup called Nobody Engineering. They realized that if we want to achieve the EU’s carbon footprint goals for buildings, we must operate our existing buildings more efficiently with all their old tech heritage. So, they engineered various adapters that connect and automate legacy building tech to achieve immediate savings with reasonable investment.

Final Thoughts

As much as I believe that some of these companies and their technologies will add value to our lives, I’m also aware that collecting more and more data about cities and their citizens can be problematic and even turn people off. We have a great opportunity ahead of us, which also holds a burden: we must gain and keep people's trust for AI and data-driven decisions. Make too many errors, and you might not recover people’s trust.

The other thought I want to leave you with is that data creates opinions among people. Data allows you to tell stories, and those stories influence how people think and behave. This puts a lot of responsibility on those collecting, analyzing, and communicating data and their insights. We should aim to weave stories that empower and benefit our communities, steering toward a more informed and inspirational future.

About the Author
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Kurt Semba
Principal Architect, Office of the CTO

Principal Architect, Office of the CTO

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