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How cities can conquer the pitfalls of Smart City Transformation, by Itai Dadon
Cities that are undergoing digital transformation initiatives have overcome a common set of challenges.
While each environment is different, the process of becoming a “smart” city requires a comprehensive approach that involves combining technology and infrastructure modernization, security enhancement, financing and organizational change. Many of the world’s most iconic cities like Copenhagen, New York City, Paris and Singapore are leading the way. By taking a platform approach and fostering collaboration across key internal and external stakeholder groups, these cities are laying the foundation for digital transformation. Other cities have had visions, but struggle to put plans in place. “Projects may not even get off the ground because of a delay in getting the concept down on paper; may fizzle out when highly capable people hesitate about getting involved because of a ‘nervousness of the new’; or may be stymied during implementation by the many competing stakeholder interests involved,” said a speaker at Singapore Management University. But while the reasons that smart city plans stall are myriad, they typically fall into four groups, relating to technology, funding, security and collaboration.
Given the diversity of needs in today’s connected cities, no single technology can offer an optimal mix of performance, reliability and cost. As one example, look at three components of a city’s infrastructure: 1) backhaul, which connects the field area network to the wide area network, typically has a combination of cellular and fiber optic technologies; 2) Field Area Networking (FAN), which is the technology behind a city’s wireless network canopy, where multiple standards and proprietary technologies such as Wi-SUN and 3gpp are competing for mindshare today; and 3) edge communications, which enables collaboration between endpoint devices, can use a variety of standard wired or wireless communication media such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet or Analog. The city of the future must be able to seamlessly integrate a wide variety of connected solutions from an ecosystem of smart city solution providers. This intelligent connectivity platform requires a trusted partner with expertise in a variety of connectivity media. Yet, bringing all of these components together in a unified system can be a technical challenge that many cities are not prepared to face. For a city manager or CIO, understanding the different capabilities and requirements of these diverse technologies can be confusing and can forestall decision-making. Lack of a clear strategy to deploy and integrate multiple, sometimes incompatible technologies makes it difficult and risky for a city to get started. Or, when cities use a trial-and-error method, they may deploy one standard or technology for a particular use case, but after major investments, followed by live-network testing, they may find it’s not the right technology for that use case. For planners, that creates challenges as they consider implementing smart technologies.
Then there are back-office IT systems to contend with: creating a unified smart city platform also requires that back-office IT systems connect applications and data systems to each other across multiple operating units. This may require significant investment in systems integration to connect legacy infrastructure and enable future applications with access to a single data warehouse. And finally, how do planners model the data collected from all the devices? How do they create an interoperability of the information across cities and not just within the city (many of us cross multiple cities every day!)? Cities that have already made significant investments in “smart” technologies must consider how all these new solutions will work with their legacy infrastructure.
“The city of the future must be able to seamlessly integrate a wide variety of connected solutions from an ecosystem of smart city solution providers”
Access to funds for any specific project can be a big challenge for many cities. Putting in place creative financing options can enable projects in many cases. One example is the PPP (public-private partnership) model, but the multiplication of parties involved can also create a bureaucratic nightmare. Even when funding for smart city investments is available, there’s an opportunity cost that comes into play. Complicating matters, planners often lack an understanding of the ROI on their applications, since many smart city use cases deliver environmental or social benefits that can be difficult to quantify. And yet a prerequisite to gaining funding is the ability to calculate a clear, data-driven ROI on an investment or business case model. Without it, the city becomes more of a testing ground, with all the attendant risks.
“Planners often lack an understanding of the return on investment on their applications, since many smart city use cases deliver environmental or social benefits that can be difficult to quantify”
Now, carriers are looking to cities to provide them with access to physical mounting assets for network equipment. In turn, the carriers are offering to expedite the roll-out of next generation services. Competition for this real estate is fierce, which is pushing some carriers to offer subsidized services in exchange for access. Streetlights, for example, are valuable mounting assets for IoT network canopies and other edge devices. Cities must carefully consider how such decisions will fit into their big-picture modernization strategy.
All cities are exposed to a range of cybersecurity threats. In this environment, a single smart city vulnerability, when exploited by an individual or organized group, may put critical infrastructure systems at risk. Arguably, the challenges are twofold: learning the security and privacy concerns of the community, and identifying and addressing system-level vulnerabilities. Now consider that as cities become “smart,” they also connect more “things” – not only devices, but also applications. Cities’ awareness of these risks is growing as cybersecurity hacks happen and private information is exposed. The problem is that most cities aren’t well equipped to identify and address their vulnerabilities. Cities need a trusted partner that offers technology, expertise and services to truly understand the risks to their critical infrastructure systems and determine the right strategies to mitigate risk. Only then can cities put in place an end-to-end military-grade system comprised of secure hardware, software and communications to minimize their exposure and prepare them to respond rapidly in the event of a breach.
“Cities need a trusted partner that offers technology, expertise and services to truly understand the risks to their critical infrastructure systems and determine the right strategies to mitigate risk”
Collaboration, or lack thereof, is another major concern that continues to thwart the implementation of comprehensive smart city plans. In many cases, cities are investing in smart technologies to address the near-term tactical needs of single departments. This uncoordinated decision-making can lead cities to invest in multiple redundant systems. In the ideal scenario, cities should take a strategic view to ensure that the technology investments they make can all be linked together in a unified system. This platform approach empowers individual departments to leverage a common set of connected assets. To maximize return on investment, smart devices should support multiple areas of city operations. The possibilities are limitless, but cities need a platform that allows multiple end-user applications to connect and control a common set of devices. Following are a few examples of how these devices can provide value across a variety of city departments and operational areas. Smart cameras can monitor intersections to generate real-time traffic information. Transportation departments can use this information to optimize traffic signal timing. However, this information can also be leveraged to improve other city services, such as lighting. With access to real-time traffic information, lighting departments can fine-tune dimming patters to reduce energy use.
“It’s been said that 'what can go wrong, will go wrong.' The corollary to this admonition is 'understand what can go wrong and it won’t go wrong.' Smart city planners might do well to live by that rule”
Similarly, noise sensors provide valuable information about what’s happening on the streets in real-time. Police departments can utilize these sensors to enhance public safety with applications like gunshot detection. Likewise, transit departments can leverage the same sensors to detect crashes on the roadways. Ideally, these departments can leverage common infrastructure to avoid redundancies. But they can’t accomplish that if they make decisions in silos. The bottom line is that planners today are still creating multiple network and back-office infrastructures, where a common platform (built around collaboration) would be more economical and easier to manage.
In envisioning the ideal smart city, the ultimate goal is to enable cities to support their diverse operational needs with a single digital platform. Often, cities will start with a single high-priority use case that delivers an immediate return on investment. Yet, the platform needs to be flexible and upgradable so that multiple departments can leverage this investment to enable a wide range of use cases in the future. This platform approach is not only vastly easier to deploy and manage, but also offers a better return on investment by minimizing the cost and complexity of deploying additional use cases in the future.