New horizons of technology

New York City is a global leader in improving the business environment while exploiting networked information technologies

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By Robert Stokes

The integration of information and communication into the fabric of cities represents a new level of challenge.

Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2013, according to the United Nations’ most recent urbanisation update. On current trends, this will rise to 66% by 2050. Cities account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 60-80% of global energy consumption, so a sustainable energy and climate change future depends on making cities smarter and more sustainable, the UN and The World Bank argued in a joint communiqué last autumn.

Cities worldwide need to ensure that increasing urbanisation does not create crises in infrastructure and public services. Preserving or improving quality of life and the business environment are key aims for Smart Cities exploiting networked information and communications technologies to build intelligence into their fabric.

New York is a global leader; however many cities are sharing their experiences while laying the groundwork for local businesses to compete globally to provide skills and technologies to others that want to get Smart.

The potential rewards are large and growing according to Navigant Research, market researchers and consultants analysing the global clean technology market. For example, they estimate that global revenue for Smart Grid and advanced energy technologies for Smart Cities will grow from US$7.3 billion last year to reach US$20.9 billion in 2024.

Global players include IT and communications giants such as IBM, Microsoft, SAP, Cisco, Ericsson and Huawei, and infrastructure suppliers such as Siemens, Schneider Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba. “Telecoms providers such as Verizon and Telefónica are also active in this space, which they see as an important part of the machine-to-machine or Internet of Things market,” observed Eric Woods, a research director at Navigant.

Service providers like Veolia, the transnational French company providing energy services and water and waste management, drive innovation in support of city operations. US multinationals promoting Smart Grid products and services for Smart Cities include, among others, Itron (NASDAQ: ITRI), dedicated to the resourceful use of energy and water; and Silver Spring Networks (NYSE: SSNI), offering Smart Grid products.

A wide range of start-ups is targeting the market, Woods added. “They include sensor technology companies, visualization and analytics specialists, urban middleware providers, and applications specialists in areas such as street lighting and Smart parking.”

Cities willing to take the extra risk of working with under-financed and often unproven technology for the benefit of being early adopters can be test-beds for start-ups.

Being close to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is experienced in encouraging and supporting such companies. “It is more comfortable with the risks of engaging with young tech firms,” observed Jesse Berst, founding chairman of the US-based Smart Cities Council. This coalition of more than 110 member companies and advisory organizations publishes the Smart Cities Readiness Guide, a comprehensive and widelyused free handbook.

Young, entrepreneurial companies can create valuable solutions on top of a city’s open data, Berst said, while sounding a note of caution.

“Most cities need to do business with established companies with the depth and financial stability to support the city over many years. Cities that don’t mind being a guinea pig may want to consider some of these new apps, but should look for ones that are interoperable with platforms and frameworks from the larger providers. That way, if the new app fails to produce, the city has some hope of finding a substitute that can plug right in.”

Just three examples from among the Smart Cities Council’s associate members illustrate the opportunities which former tech start-ups that are now well-established are finding in other countries.

Silver Spring Networks is working with Copenhagen and Paris to provide Smart street lights that also create Wi-Fi canopy networks. Canada’s Imex Systems, a pioneer in internet based applications for governments and communities, uses IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology to improve Imex’s customer services technology assisting governments to better deliver services to citizens and businesses. Finland’s Enevo is working with Washington DC to install the company’s state-of-the-art trash bin sensors and trash truck route optimization.

Among locations that San Francisco has studied on fact-finding trips is Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, where £24 million of government funding is assisting development of a Smart network and capabilities (See Glasgow feature of page 4) based on Open Data and technology.

David Smith
David Smith

“Over the next few years, we will see an increasingly connected and Smart Glasgow with integrated services across health, transport, energy and public safety,” said David Smith, director of technology and engineering at Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish government’s economic development agency.

“For example, some early initiatives being planned and implemented are Smart street lighting, flexible energy re-distribution to reduce carbon emissions and residents’ bills, and real-time travel data to help citizens plan routes more effectively.”

The Future City Glasgow project allows businesses to test new solutions through means such as an already-live Data Launchpad, a repository of more than 400 data sets from sensors and other information sources hitherto available mostly to City Hall and its agencies.

“Scotland has outstanding technology and engineering talent,” Smith said. “It is well-poised to capitalise on newly emerging opportunities in this space. We expect to see these capabilities driving far-reaching company and sector innovation as this market develops.”

The greatest opportunities exist where companies can add value and are customer-centric, said Smith. “We think mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) will become a dominant entry point globally for Scottish companies.”

MaaS refers to services replacing or supplementing personal vehicle ownership, such e-hailing, bicycle-sharing and car-sharing.

“Aside from sustainability benefits, the most important cultural dimension to this, and the reason that these Smart services are thriving, is that the services are built round the needs of the customer, rather than limited by the ‘silo-ed’ nature of the transport operators,” Smith added.

The fastest emerging areas of this will most likely be the most deregulated areas of the overall transport network, he suggested. “We will likely see more Ubers and Nextbikes, with competition fuelling innovation and new technologies.”

Smith also hopes to see more emphasis on Smart Communities, rather than Smart Cities, where services can connect both urban and rural areas. Like many parts of the US, Scotland has a large mix of rural and urban enterprise. “We are working with partners on how to leverage innovations from Smart City technology to encompass more remote communities as well.”

In developing countries, Smart technologies allow cities to “skip a generation” by achieving more connected frameworks faster than developed nations encumbered by established services and infrastructure, he noted.“

India is a promising market where the Smart Cities concept is used as a national upgrading lever. It is developing Smart Cities from the ground up instead of investing in traditional, developed country infrastructures.”

Smart need not mean expensive, Smith stressed. “Uber started on a relatively low budget and very little infrastructure. While some technologies need large upfront investment for city-wide implementation, longer-term cost and energy savings will likely far outweigh this.”