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Why smart cities need to become smarter about technology

Cities are experimenting with smarter ways to use technologies to improve the life of citizens, but their projects are fragmented. Is there a better approach?

Smart cities need to become more intelligent about the way they control everything, from traffic lights to the distribution of water.

Cities across the world are experimenting with technology to improve the life of their residents, but many are installing technology in a fragmented way.

The problem is that smart technology systems have yet to be connected, with a system performing a function in one part of a town separate from a system performing another function in a different area.

Chris Harding, director of interoperability at independent IT standards organisation The Open Group, is on a quest to change that. He believes creating smart networks that can talk to each other will open up huge possibilities for using data to improve the lives of citizens.

There are obvious smart city technologies that should be integrated, according to Harding. It makes sense, for example, to link traffic control systems with pollution monitoring systems so cities can control traffic to reduce pollution levels.

The reason smart cities are not more joined up is that city authorities and technology suppliers tend to develop smart technology “from the ground up”. This means they think about what they want to measure and control, install the sensors and the networks, and then the data processing technology, but they don’t think how they can combine networks of sensors across the whole city, said Harding.

“Smart cities are putting smart applications in, but they have not yet got to point where they realise they need to connect their smart apps together,” he added.

As smart technology becomes more common in cities, municipal authorities and technology suppliers will need to develop ways to make their sensor networks work with each other.

There is a risk that cities will face constant disruption, with competing suppliers digging up the streets to install cable networks or deploying tens of thousands of wireless transmitters, unless they can find a way to share infrastructure.

Cyber security will drive collaboration

One factor that will probably encourage cities and their technology providers to take a more integrated approach to networked sensors is the need for better cyber security.

Hackers have not yet replicated The Italian Job, where a criminal gang brought Turin to a halt by reprogramming the traffic signals, but, in one attack in the UK, they did deface electronic road signs, replacing traffic directions with obscenities.

The risks to infrastructure from cyber crime will escalate exponentially as more networks are interconnected.

“Flood control systems could be subverted by hackers, with disastrous consequences,” said Harding.

Protecting citizens’ data

Data protection will become an increasing concern, particularly as the European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in May 2018.

Infrastucture suppliers will need to ensure their equipment is compatible with diverging data protection regulations in different countries, and city authorities will need to make sure they respect the privacy of their residents.

“Assuming I plan my journey to work using smart city technology, is someone able to identify my route to work? It could have security implications for some people,” said Harding. “Will I be bombarded with targeted adverts on the way to work?”

Another question yet to be resolved is how best to make a business case for smart cities. Rather than being judged on the financial return on investment of smart city technologies, public authorities will be measured on the improvements they make to quality of life for its residents, said Harding.

If the public don’t like what city officials are doing, the sanction is not loss of business, but loss of votes in the next election.

The New York experience

New York has taken an innovative approach by creating public-private sector partnerships to develop smart city applications from sensor data. The partner companies make a profit from their work in return for investing in the infrastructure and services necessary.

One project, for example, aims to turn 7,500 public telephone boxes into superfast Wi-Fi stations offering free internet connections, charging points for mobile phones and access to city services. The project will be funded through targeted advertising.

“That is a more scalable model than one where the city does everything, but it’s not the only model. It’s really a political question which model you choose,” said Harding.

Another approach, favoured in Europe, is to make public sector data freely available to businesses and the public. An EU research project has shown that commercial companies often have a better idea about how to develop smart cities than government officials.

“One thing that came out of it for me is that commercial organisations are a lot better than city administrators at identifying where information is useful to citizens,” said Harding.

It’s early days, but Harding hopes to use The Open Group to bring technology suppliers and public authorities together to agree protocols that will allow different smart city technologies to share data and infrastructure and to work seamlessly together.

Once smart cities grow and develop, city authorities will need to keep their networks of sensors and control systems up to date, and adjust them to the city’s changing needs.

“You don’t just architect a smart city and then it’s done. You get massive changes in smart city make-up and in changing demographics, so the need for different kinds of data grows and shrinks,” said Harding.

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