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Three steps towards a hierarchy of needs for smart cities

Smart cities face challenges around network connectivity, standardisation and data governance, say IoT experts, and these needs must be met for them to flourish

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Undeniably, smart cities are the wave of the future, providing one of the most intriguing and innovative applications for the internet of things (IoT), and offering untold benefits for governments and citizens around service provision, quality of life, security and sustainability in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.

However the deployment and smooth running of smart city projects have yet to be fully worked out.

In the UK alone, several projects – such as Bristol is Open and MK:Smart – are forging ahead with much success. However, they are merely pilots, independent of one another, and it will eventually be crucial for some form of government policy to be laid down.

At the IoT Tech Expo fair in London, held in February 2016, a panel made up of a number of smart city advocates and experts debated some of the biggest challenges facing smart city projects.

The panel laid out the basic needs that must be met for smart cities to flourish, and deliver on the big promises that have been made. If these needs can be met, then we will be well on our way to truly smart cities.

1. The need for connectivity

At its heart, the IoT demands broadband connectivity – and if you haven’t got that thing, your embryonic smart city project probably ain’t worth a swing in the first place.

Up to now, discussions around the IoT have tended to centre on the networks that will support the sensors themselves. Sensors tend to be discrete units that are not online all the time, the technobabble tends to be around low-power wide area networks (WANs), Bluetooth or other, similar standards such as Zigbee.

This is all very well when all you are doing is sending small, chatty bursts of data back to a central hub, but if anything useful is to come of that data, the connectivity at the other end must be addressed.

In essence, while a local authority may want to go all out to deploy sensors to support an integrated public transport app – bringing live service information to users on the move – if the people who ride on the buses cannot access it, there is no point.

The full benefits of the internet of things cannot be realised if millions cannot have access
Chi Onwurah, shadow digital economy minister

BT’s developers agree that superfast broadband must be a universal reality to support smart cities. That agreement could be a sign of an imminent bust-up between BT Openreach and BT’s research and development team at Adastral Park, or – more likely – a reflection of the sheer size and diversity of BT.

John Davies, chief researcher of future business technology at BT, says: “We need to put in place more underlying technologies and networks to enable smart city technologies to be employed more effectively.”

The need for broadband becomes even more important when you realise that many users of local authority services – precisely those who could be the biggest beneficiaries of smart city technology – tend towards lower socio-economic brackets and digital exclusion.

“Smart city technology has a role to play in socio-economic challenges. However, it has to be underpinned by other technologies. I think of digital inclusion, for example, and poor areas are nearly always the same areas with the lowest rates of broadband penetration,” says Davies.

Member of Parliament for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow digital economy minister Chi Onwurah agrees: “We need everyone online and able to access services and products digitally, because the full benefits of the internet of things cannot be realised if millions cannot have access.”

The debate about smart cities will be bogged down in technicalities without connectivity being addressed, warns Onwurah, who used her keynote address to call for the IoT industry to start lobbying government for better broadband. After all, she says, the wider industry has more credibility – and certainly more authority – than the politicians in charge of the national broadband roll-out.

2. The need for standardisation

Jonny Voon, lead technologist at Innovate UK, says that so far, he has seen too much emphasis on smart city technology in the context of global megacities – urban conglomerations such as Beijing, Mumbai, São Paulo or Tokyo, home to many millions of people each.

“At that scale you have many challenges, but smart cities should not just be focused on cities of that scale, because all cities have challenges,” says Voon. “Yes, look at those megacities, but look at smaller initiatives too, because they may be still able to scale appropriately.”

Civic Tech Amsterdam CEO Katalin Gallyas advocates a collaborative approach to smart cities and in her role as taskforce member at Open and Agile Smart Cities (OASC). The OASC is an initiative founded on the idea that one city alone is not a market, and that an open smart city market must be created based on the needs of urban communities, interoperability, and standards.

OASC has more than 70 cities on its roster, including Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, Helsinki and Lisbon. In the UK it counts Aberdeen, Bristol, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Leeds, Manchester, Perth and Stirling as members. The organisation is also active in a number of other countries, including Australia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Croatia, Italy and Spain.

“This is the way we try to educate cities not to procure too fast, to look around and find out how to create your solution,” says Gallyas.

Meanwhile Paul Wilson, managing director of smart city programme Bristol is Open, brings the debate on smart city standards back to the underlying network.

More support for easier access to data in a non-siloed approach will maximise the value of that data
John Davies, BT

“Smart cities are about people, and just building the technology won’t get you where you want to go. In Bristol, we have thought about networks as technology-agnostic, heterogeneous networks, typically based on a software-defined network, where there are two big standards – OpenFlow and OpenDaylight.

“There is lots of interesting work going on in how networks are architected, which is leading to a burst of innovation. Standardisation would be extremely helpful, especially for application developers. That lack of market is currently preventing smart cities from scaling.”

BT’s John Davies says that the smart city stack encompasses sensors, networks and data, and standards are definitely emerging in all those areas.

“We want to break down vertical, siloed applications and make all of that data from each silo available in an open ecosystem. That’s what Hypercat is all about, which we’re using in BT.

“More support for easier access to data in a non-siloed approach will maximise the value of that data, take away the pain for developers, and support innovative SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises] that will drive smart city ecosystems forward,” says Davies.

Michael Mulquin, smart cities standards expert at the British Standards Institute (BSI), agrees that smart city standards need to play their part in breaking down siloes, but beyond data to encompass management and strategy as well, where plans can often conflict.

“It’s not just about knitting together technologies, but management and process, and making sure the city is able to make use of technology effectively to work better,” says Mulquin.

3. The need for data governance

In the West Country, the Bristol is Open smart city project has been up and running for almost a year, and is exploring many applications, including transport mapping and smart utility metering in local authority housing. Its objectives are quite simple – to improve the daily lives of its citizens, enhance access to services, and bolster Bristol’s already thriving technology scene. But what will happen to the vast amounts of data it will generate?

“Things get murky once the technology is done – and there will be a huge surge forward in the next decade – but after all that fun, the question will be, who owns it?” says the project’s managing director Paul Wilson.

As an example of a future smart city project, Bristol is Open is exploring the possibility of deploying sensors in private rental homes to collect data on rising damp, which the authorities can then use to take enforcement action against unscrupulous, absentee or just plain negligent landlords.

However, once that damp dataset is collected, who will take ownership of it? Will it be the network or cloud provider, the local council, the tenant or even the landlord? Perhaps more importantly, who will secure it?

If the city gives control of its data to a large multinational there will be a huge backlash
Paul Wilson, Bristol is Open

“If the city gives control of its data to a large multinational there will be a huge backlash. Governance around the data is super important, and local authorities will have to play a role in this accountability. Big corporations also have a role to play, but they will have to dance with civic authorities that cannot spend a ton of money,” says Wilson.

He predicts that organisations such as the Hypercat consortium or Innovate UK will eventually find themselves in the role of mediator, or chaperone, in the dance between well-heeled IT businesses and cash-strapped cities.

Davies at BT also speaks up for Hypercat, saying it can play a role in creating an open ecosystem with data providers and owners working together to avoid a sense of supplier lock-in.

In MK:Smart, with BT, we have a programme with a target to involve 90 SMEs building apps for Milton Keynes, and it will be interesting to see what business models emerge,” he says.

According to Innovate UK’s Jonny Woon, most local authorities don’t know how to procure a smart city, if such a thing can even be said to be something one “procures”.

“Local authorities are less willing to be procurers and more partners. In London, Lambeth had its budget cut, so Lambeth is not thinking about buying its next IoT platform,” he says. “They want to partner, that’s a business model that the IoT enables, helping authorities extract value through partnerships.”

Chi Onwurah argues that, ultimately, regulation and governance of smart city data needs to be in the interests of citizens.

“Can one have a truly integrated public transport system to reflect what people want at any particular time, if the cost of that is that government – local or national – has access to your location data all day, every day? Is that the kind of trade-off we are willing to make? Government needs to do more to ensure that debate is heard,” says Onwurah.

“The government must think about a framework for data governance,” agrees Woon. “If I, as a citizen, give my data to BT, if BT passes that data along the consent relationship gets more tenuous the further it goes – to a point where the chain of consent actually no longer exists. Government must look at this, but at a local authority level it is reluctant to get too hands-on because it should be an open market.”

Read more about smart cities

  • The Singapore government is pitching to make the tiny Asean city-state a centre for the development of smart city tech. Find out how and why.
  • The city of Rzeszow in Poland is building a microwave data transmission platform to manage transport systems in a smart city project.
  • The “MK: Smart” project took home TechTarget’s Best of Show prize at the VMworld Europe 2015 show in Barcelona – and this is why.
This was first published in February 2016

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