The term "smart city" has come to mean different things in the tech lexicon, but it is most meaningful in use cases that improve services and quality of life for its residents. Global cities including Singapore, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Rio de Janeiro—and smaller ones like Bristol in the U.K. and Jakarta in Indonesia—have deployed projects that improve air and traffic quality, and experts say they are ahead of the curve in their smart city efforts.
The abilities of cities to become sustainable, more efficient, and increasingly green is no longer a nice-to-have; they are imperatives when you consider that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, according to Lux Research.
While definitions of what constitutes a "smart city" vary, they tend to include one or more attributes such as environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and convenient, livable spaces, the firm says.
"At the heart of smart cities is quality of life and the resiliency of the city,’’ says Alex Herceg, an analyst at Lux Research. "There’s a lot of excitement around connectivity, and certainly that’s an element of enhancing quality of life for citizens, but the idea that smart cities is a lot of renewables, coupled with sensors and giant cameras; that isn’t a smart city in and of itself."
A key component of making smart city projects a reality is the ability to utilize big data and analytics in software dashboards. Vendors including IBM, Cisco, and SAP all offer large platforms to help city officials gain visibility into, and make better use of, their data. In late September, Oracle announced it will build a "Center of Excellence" in Mumbai, India, which will serve as a research facility to design, develop, and test smart city initiatives.
The city of Bristol is working with Cisco to develop a software-defined network (SDN) using Network Function Virtualization, which enables multiple projects to use a network simultaneously without interference. This will make Bristol the first city in the world to use its own digital infrastructure in this manner, according to Cisco. As part of its Smart+Connected Communities program, Cisco has been involved in more than 100 smart city engagements over the past eight years, says Arvind Satyam, managing director, Global Business Development Smart+Connected Communities, Cisco.
When it comes to city transformation, one of the biggest roadblocks is the financial piece; figuring out how to finance these projects and what the return on investment (ROI) will be, Satyam observes. "Public-private partnerships are a growing trend in making digital transformation projects possible—with initial technology investments borne by the private-sector partner and the operating expenses carried over time by the public-sector partners," he says.
Cisco has also started creating new financial partnerships with organizations "that understand the vision and risks of smart city transformation projects and are willing to work with customers in innovative ways to help them realize their goals," Satyam says.
IBM is working with officials in Bangalore to help the municipality deal with leakage from its water systems, says Rizwan Khaliq, vice president of Client Engagement and Chief Marketing Officer at IBM Global Government. "It’s expanded so fast they have a lot of leakage, because they built the city so fast and there’s too many people tapping into the infrastructure." Bangalore has deployed sensors that help with preventative maintenance and determine where leaks are, and to improve water quality and distribution, Khaliq says.
Residents of Singapore can call up the tax authority and talk to IBM Watson, which "finds answers to every question they have in real time,’’ Khaliq says. The technology is being used in other cities to improve services such as permitting and licensing. "As more municipalities start realizing they don’t need to invest in significant capital expenditures, they can look at new models and protect their investment in the future,’’ such as delivering services via the cloud, he says.
Municipalities have invested tremendous amounts of money in setting up and maintaining their IT infrastructure. The cloud enables them to utilize infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) "rather than rip and replace,’’ Khaliq says.
While there are "pockets within the U.S." of cities deploying smart city projects, Khaliq says that overall, cities outside the U.S. are further along in their efforts. "There is a lot more innovation coming out of different places in the world, and the U.S. in some ways is in catchup mode,’’ he maintains. "In some places, we’re way behind."
Satyam concurs. "Broadly speaking, we’ve seen cities in Europe and Asia adopt smart city initiatives earlier than in the U.S.,’’ he says. "But the U.S. is waking up."
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.