A 2014 U.N. report estimates that by the year 2050, continuing population growth and urbanization will increase the world’s urban populations by 2.5 billion people. Metropolitan areas are expected to grow by 404 million people in India, 292 million in China, and 212 million in Nigeria. The U.S. is expected to add more than 50 million people to its cities during that time period.
Imagine a city where the power grid – encompassing every thermostat, every street light, and every parking meter, along with water systems, traffic controls, etc. – and the people are all seamlessly interconnected and communicating with each other. Now imagine accessing that power grid on a single dashboard from a municipal command and control center with state-of-the-art predictive analytics and data security. Visionary? Yes. But realistic?
The reality is that cities, even small ones, are complex and organic, growing and changing constantly. And no two are the same, with different municipal departments responsible for different services from city to city. Compound this with capital budget restrictions, shifting priorities, and a lack of broad citizen engagement, and Smart City implementation soon becomes costly and complex. These challenges can quickly derail discussions in the mayor’s office or with the city council, but they don’t have to – and in truth, they can’t be allowed to. Like it or not, more people are moving into cities every day, stretching existing resources beyond capacity – in other words, traffic won’t be getting any better. Cities simply must take action to accommodate the burden on their resources.
Rather than build a Smart City from the top down, visionaries should be looking to build from the bottom up. This doesn’t mean dispense with an overarching Smart City vision and strategy – these features are essential. Rather, once the strategy is established, look for ways to drive early value incrementally. Start with a single building or street, and leverage existing and planned infrastructure upgrades with smart technology choices. What are the costs and benefits of adding smart technologies to that planned upgrade of street lights or traffic signals? For example, the city of Nice, France, started by focusing on a single boulevard – and through adjusting street light intensity based on pedestrian and traffic peak periods, and on real-time weather conditions such as fog and rain, the city expects to save 20 percent to 80 percent on its electricity bills.
While it’s not really true that humans use only 10 percent of their brains, it has been documented in many studies that only a fraction of data gathered is actually analyzed – and even less of that analysis is completed in a timely fashion. The returns from Smart City investments come from just that: analyzing the data, and then acting on it. Cities are sitting on a wealth of data that should be analyzed to uncover opportunities for optimization, which then results in additional cost savings or revenue generation.
Recent high-profile security breaches have made startling headlines – and many of them could have been avoided. These breaches often occur when organizations fail to invest in connected security solutions, violate security best practices, or neglect to build security into products and services. Since the security and privacy of citizens’ data is critical to any Smart City initiative, investing in comprehensive security tools, developing strong security processes, and monitoring for compliance are musts. Adding sensors and smart devices to upgrade infrastructure components (e.g., street lights) and then connecting them to government systems through the Internet introduces new opportunities for security breaches. It is essential to review and strengthen current IT security, identity, privacy, and management practices to prepare for potential additional risk exposure. Secure smart devices, sensors, and software are available, so be sure to consider the built-in security features of solutions before buying. The key to Smart City project security: Be concerned but not paralyzed. Proceed cautiously.
The key trends that metropolitan areas face today – rapid urbanization, resource and financial constraints, sustainability, and competitiveness – all point to the need for cities to be smarter. Smart City scenarios are now within reach, thanks to the confluence of megatrends in technology – the Internet of Things, data centers, the cloud, and big data analytics – that together finally provide cost and scale opportunities. Population growth is inevitable, so there is no time to delay: cities must take the first small steps and leverage the available technology to ensure their future.