Miguel Lira Amy Barker 12 July 2018

Smart city tech for local challenges?

It’s been said before, but we need to say it again; it’s time to turn the concept of smart cities on its head and ask the question, ‘what are we really trying to achieve here?’

Many of us have spent time at smart city exhibitions, trawling the aisles, listening to thought leaders and looking for inspiration. We’ve all attended meetings to discuss how we make our own city or town smarter. But as we are listening, looking and discussing these things, can we be sure we are asking ourselves the right questions and looking in the right places for the answers?

Let’s face it; for so many towns and cities, the idea of becoming ‘smart’ is a far-off dream. Budgets have been cut and day to day concerns are far more mundane than the technology elite may suggest. Fixing the pot hole on Barnards Avenue and the flickering street light on Mayville Road still feature in every day conversations. A far cry from the efficient operations that a ‘smart city’ promises.

However, it has come to the point now where we all understand the concept of what a centrally managed control system does and how a bird’s eye view of daily operations can help to save energy, money and time. But, with limited budgets and massive growth targets to meet, how do local authorities take advantage of ‘smart-city’ technology in an affordable and realistic way?

Well, it could be argued, that by using the very term ‘smart city’, we are thinking about the application of intelligent technology in a back to front manner.

Let’s look at a typical scenario. Most towns have an accident ‘black spot’. And it would be a surprise if the subject of technology hadn’t been discussed as a possible solution. Better lighting control? Smart signs that detect speed? But if we think outside the immediate and obvious issue, we are likely to see that at the heart of the problem is ‘inefficiency’.

It might be that the accidents are occurring because up ahead a set of traffic lights is causing a queue which means drivers have to break suddenly. Or a narrow road runs next to a popular cycle route and drivers become frustrated at having to drive slowly. In fact, at the heart of most troublesome hot-spots, we will find that it is because our towns and cities are not efficient.

And if our towns and cities are not efficient, then Mr and Mrs Marshall may choose the town next door because they know they can get around much easier and faster. If our towns are not efficient, then productivity will be lower and investors will look elsewhere.

So maybe the question is not ‘how do I make my city smarter?’. Or even ‘how do I make it more efficient?’ In fact, the question we all have a duty to ask is ‘how do I help to make my city more competitive, and be a place people choose to live, work and play in?’

And if we start with that question, we have to think about more than just our own, individual remits. Implementing a sensor across our cities that helps to monitor litter bin levels may help us to keep our streets cleaner - but if it isn’t considered as part of a wider, competitive strategy, then we risk wasting precious budget and not future proofing our investment.

This is a challenge for all of us; engineers, planners, technology providers, councillors – we all have a responsibility to think creatively about how we use intelligent technology to improve our productivity and contribute to our council’s long-term visions.

But none of us can expect to individually develop a complete solution. Instead we must work collaboratively with our peers, to inspire the powerful thinking and impactful ideas that will fuel our vision for the future. Because not only does collaboration help create clear purpose and aligned focus, but it also provides a platform for innovative thinking.

A practical example might be to consider the opportunities surrounding big property developments. Depending on the impact that the development has on the surrounding area, there may be opportunity to receive funding from the developer to put towards a lighting control system that in turn, will enable a communications network to connect air pollution sensors, waste bin’s filling rate alerts or monitoring the drainage system condition.

Of course, these sorts of opportunities will vary council by council. But the point is; without opening up the dialogue between departments, we can’t even begin the conversation.

Better collaboration also ensures that the vision for a more competitive and efficient city supports the need for diverse connectivity under one integrated management environment.

The idea of having a single, physical communication network to support all aspects of a highly productive town, is an outdated school of thought. Supporting diverse connectivity however, means supporting multiple networks, subnetworks, connection interfaces, ranges, bandwidths, topologies and so on. Eventually these will all have to coexist in order for us to truly reap the benefits of smarter living. After all, we no longer purchase a smartphone with only cellular connection. We also require Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC. Exactly the same expectation must be applied when considering the hardware and software that is required to achieve the vision for our cities.

Asking some simple questions before deciding on a technology solution can help to future proof the investment and ensure it is flexible enough to scale up and adapt to future innovations.

For example:

• Does the product have the physical space to add in new chips or tech in the future?
• Does the technology have a multi-purpose or function? For example, does a lighting control system not only control lights but also capture and analyse data from other sensors, so the cost can to be spread across all departments that benefit from the system?
• If it is a physical product, how feature-rich is it? Even if the need or funding is not immediately there for a particular feature, ask if you can purchase products with functionality switched off, and then switch it on in the future. Or is the product’s firmware upgradable remotely to accommodate new features?
• How compatible are the products with other manufacturers and network providers? E.g. can a street lighting node talk to multiple networks? If it only needs to talk to one now, how easy is it to upgrade it in the future?

In return, we technology providers, must be considering the longevity of our solutions. We must ensure we are doing all we can to provide options for those with small budgets but have long-term growth ambition. We must be striving to offer this level of flexibility so local authorities can invest with confidence, knowing their solution will grow with them.

The final part of the jigsaw is to consider what happens when we start to reap the benefits of our improving environment. Do we all pat each other on the back and say ‘good job, that new system was implemented perfectly’, and then go back to working in our silos? Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Because one of the biggest and often most immediate benefits of any intelligent system is the flood of data and information that it brings to our finger tips.

And if our objective is to build a more competitive, more efficient and productive environment for our citizens, then surely the biggest prize is the ability to sustain those advantages through the analysis and interpretation of the data being captured.

In order to achieve this, we must consider how efficiently the data is disseminated to all stakeholders. To keep innovation alive, we must not be precious with the data that is captured or the trends that are identified. It is so easy to assume that no one else will benefit from understanding the man-hours that a central management system may have saved us by being able to operate a targeted maintenance programme. Instead we must readily share these learnings with other departments, with the technology provider, with universities and professional bodies so we can obtain the maximum return on our investment.

It might be unrealistic to ditch the phrase ‘smart city’ when we’ve only just begun to understand it. But let’s make sure that the word ‘smart’ is more about how we, the solution providers, leaders, manufacturers, planners and engineers, are working together to leverage the benefits that new technology brings. If we can do that, then we can truly claim to be a ‘smart’ city.

Miguel Lira is innovation & development director and Amy Barker is marketing manager at Urban Control Ltd

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine - click here for your free copy.

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