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IoT developers face critical questions when digitally transforming cities

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: Everything to know about overcoming digital transformation challenges

Digitally transformed smart cities are the wave of the future, there’s no doubt about that. But the road to a more connected municipality is far from clear. Although there are some common challenges in major metropolitan areas across the U.S., no two cities have the same infrastructure, governance, attitude, budget, or requirements. The way things work in Chicago is not how things are handled in Dallas, Atlanta, or San Francisco.

There are many questions surrounding building smart cities through a digital transformation. What solutions will be first in line for development? Who is the real customer? What happens with all that data? The answers will determine how the world looks in twenty years. And it will certainly look very different than it does right now.

First, consider the types of digital transformations that are being proposed to make cities more user-friendly. Bob Gessel, Head of Network and Technology Strategy for Ericsson, confirmed that initial implementations will depend on the city and the problems they are trying to solve. Ericsson is placing bets on transportation being a front runner for many municipalities. “We are spending time understanding traffic and mobility to help cities manage existing and future traffic. The goal is to instrument the infrastructure and provide data to the consumer so they can navigate better based on situational awareness. We call this the connected traffic cloud.” The company hopes to help cities and commuters find new ways to process data into fresh insights saving time, fuel, and energy.

Smart cars, buildings, and cities will emerge together

Besides working with manufacturers on instrumentation within vehicles, IoT innovators are focusing on vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure communication. In fact, smart cars will be much more likely to proliferate in a smart city. According to Bob, connected cities will generate new data for autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. “That way it is possible to determine where they would drive and safe areas to test them out.”

In fact, the roadways may soon be jammed with IoT, figuratively speaking. Vehicles that automatically report on road conditions would serve a critical purpose in any smart traffic solution. When older roadside lights are replaced with LED lamps, the new lights might also contain air quality sensors. The data delivered from these edge devices could offer advance notice for residents and visitors who might want to adjust travel plans, outdoor activities, and medications to deal with environmental threats.

On the startup scene, some solutions are focused on solving a specific problem at the level of the end user. At a recent North Texas IoT hackathon, smart city and connected car were strong areas of innovation. Yeshwant Muthusamy, PhD, Principal at Yeshvik Solutions, proposed an IoT system that would make parking within university lots and garages easier and safer. Other innovators aimed to serve tourists and new residents with interactive television or smartphone apps that would promote local events and businesses based on geospatial targeting.

Digitally transforming into a smart city

Yeshwant pointed out that the United States is not leading the way in the conversion to connected cities, but attitudes are shifting. “Smart city is already catching on outside the U.S. I think it is changing and beginning to manifest in the U.S. as well.” One reason for this delay is that it can be a challenge to get buy in. There are many stakeholders involved from the city councils and elected officials to public agencies, business leaders, and other interested parties. “It is incumbent upon those proposing the solution to identify the customer and communicate the result in cost savings or revenue generation. You have to appeal to that key aspect.” Collide Village CEO and hackathon organizer Tahir Hussain agreed. “The stakeholder is the city, but the customer is whoever sees the vision and value.”

Mike Courtney, Founder of Aperio Insight, offered his perspective. “The question of who is going to buy the solution is only something to worry about in the beginning. The customer of a city is always the population that lives in, works in, or visits the city. Smart city is no different.” But overcoming that initial hurdle and getting a system bought and paid for is easier said than done. According to Bob Gessel, “It’s complex because it is typically not one buyer. It’s rare to find one agency that will fund a large project. You need to have multiple buyers lined up. Some of those interested parties are already employing connected infrastructure. That’s important because you may need multiple types of connection including fiber optic, wireless, 4g, 5g, etc. It all comes at a price. You have to make the business case and an ecosystem of buyers has to line up.”

Sometimes, all it takes to get started is one agency on a mission. Recently, the Port of San Diego was given a mandate to reduce CO2 emissions. This was an immediate problem that required energy efficient solutions. The idea of investing in more eco-friendly buildings was discussed, but the cost would be high. Connected parking solutions using IoT came to the rescue. Bob said this was a completely unexpected way for the port to move toward meeting its goals. “By changing from dumb to smart meters, they increased revenue a few hundred dollars a month per meter. This new revenue stream can now be directed to smart energy solutions.”

What about big data generated by smart cities?

Courtney spoke about the benefits that could come from widespread access to IoT data. For example, smart cities undergoing a digital transformation might have a significant social impact on low income families. From saving costs on utilities to making it easier to get around, more connection could make life easier. “In the public transportation sector, it might mean having a smart bus stop. The bus knows whether there is anyone at the stop and can skip stops that are empty. Commuters might get home fifteen to twenty minutes earlier to spend more time with family.”

However, there is a natural concern with privacy as well. Mike addressed this issue by mentioning another hot IoT topic—blockchain. “Smart city has an intersection of opportunity with blockchain. The goal would be to make some pieces transparent and other pieces hidden and unhackable. For example, information about who is using power and water is more important in the aggregate than the specific. For some types of data, law enforcement may want a more granular view if there is a suspicion that something illegal is going on. But most high level, aggregate data would be available for everyone to access.”

Steve Ball, Senior Director of Product Management at Senet, offered his take on next steps. “There’s a lot of work still to be done in defining open exchange standards. It’s still fairly nascent in development. It’s not yet been realized what the value will be when you have millions of data points from sensors combined with other records.” Will smart cities lead to smarter citizens? Only time will tell.

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