The evolution of smart cities: what provisions are vital for their success?

Last updated: 29 November 2019

Cities are undergoing a wave of digital transformation. With rapid population growth and urbanization transforming the way we live, improving or even maintaining our current quality of life relies upon using resources more efficiently. To put this point into perspective, it is estimated that by 2050, 66 percent of the global population will live in cities – an additional 2.5 billion people on the current number. Despite this significant change, keeping people and the environment healthy in order to provide sustainable jobs and attractive living spaces should be an objective for every government. After all, a flourishing population is what makes a city tick. The real test for smart cities, therefore, is whether citizens can feel benefits as a direct result of them. We are lucky that we now have the technology to diminish many of the shortcomings of urbanization as this blog will also explore.

Smart cities work by utilizing IoT sensors, actuators, and technology to connect components across the city. This connects every layer of a city, from the air to the street to the Underground. In this way, cloud based IoT applications receive, analyze and manage data in real-time to help municipalities, enterprises, and citizens make better decisions that can, in turn, work towards making our lives that bit easier. Importantly, smart cities also benefit the environment. Pairing devices and data with a city’s physical infrastructure and services can cut costs and improve sustainability with both water and energy usage, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions.

In 2019 the very first edition of the IMD Smart City Index ranked 102 cities worldwide, based on how citizens perceive the scope and impact of efforts to make their cities ‘smart’. The highest ranked city according to the results is Singapore, with northern Europe also doing particularly well, having six cities ranked as part of the top ten.

In Singapore, smart traffic cameras already restrict traffic depending on the level of volume, in order to ease the commute of thousands of passengers every day. What’s more, as fewer transactions are made using cash, and instead use mobile wallet payments for travel, the country is putting in place measures that can understand how many people are paying for tickets at certain times of the day, or up-and-coming areas that might benefit from increased levels of housing.

In Copenhagen, which ranked fifth overall, its smart city projects have used wireless data from phones merged with GPS signals to meet green initiatives city-wide. Using data about how people across the city moved, the city was able to better optimize its flow of traffic. In the end, a 10 percent reduction of travel time for residents was achieved, as well as huge economic benefit from the energy saved.

One thing that is very apparent in making a smart city work, is that all the integrated technology needs to be embraced by the people of the city, which means that building the next generation of smart cities is going to take a massive amount of cooperation between businesses, governments and citizens.

For governments and councils, it not simply a case of juggling city resources – they need to be encouraging a lifestyle change in people that supports a smart city. Antwerp, for example, is putting its people at the center of innovation. The city is bringing citizens together with user groups, hardware developers and app developers, in order to accelerate the implementation of the Internet of Things, establishing a smart and participative city.

There are also a number of questions around ethics involved in the implementation of smart cities and managing the data they collect. We’ve already seen the banning of certain software in many cities due to the lack of transparency surrounding data rights. It is therefore absolutely essential that all ecosystem partners – governments, enterprises, software providers, device manufacturers, energy providers, and network service providers – do their part and integrate solutions that abide by core security objectives:

Availability: Without actionable, real-time, and reliable access to data, the smart city can’t thrive. How data is collected, distilled and shared is critical, and security solutions must avoid negative effects on availability.

Integrity: Smart cities depend on reliable and accurate data. Measures must be taken to ensure that data is accurate and free from manipulation by a malicious actor.

Confidentiality: Some of the data collected, stored and analyzed will include sensitive details about consumers themselves. Steps must be taken to create strong authentication methods to prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.

Accountability: Users of a system must be responsible for their actions. Their interactions with sensitive systems should be logged and associated with a specific user. These logs should be difficult to forge and have strong encrypted protections.

Thankfully, as a result of growing digital security concerns, legislation is being introduced to address threats and potential market failure. The creation of legislation like the IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act in the U.S, for example, will help to establish minimum security requirements for connected devices.

With the smart city industry projected to be a $400 billion market by 2020, and with 600 cities around the globe expected to generate 60% of the world’s GDP by 2025, the deployment of 5G technology will be a turning point to propel smart city technology into the mainstream and accelerate innovations in this sphere. While there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to putting the most appropriate infrastructure in place to facilitate the creation of a smart city, there are many Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) options that are already available that a city can select from such as, LTE Cat M, NB-IoT, LoRa, Bluetooth.

One only needs to look at the most recent example of the city of Hull in the UK, which recently developed its own operating system to centralize all the IoT elements, to understand how a cohesive smart city strategy could be put into practice across the world. Learning from other cities who have trialed smart city technology, listening to communities, and ensuring smart city data is properly secured is the key to consumer trust in this revolution and the expansion of more smart cities in the future.

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