The growth of Britain’s smart cities – Part 2

Brid-Aine Parnell

Thursday 30 April 2015

Entrepreneurs and companies that want to be at the forefront of smart city initiatives and the Internet of Things need to focus on sharing infrastructure, building on standards and plug-and-play devices.

The UK government wants Britain to be a hub for smart city projects and a source of standards that will help drive an interoperable technology-fuelled future for urban areas. So far, that has meant opening up public data to be mined by different officials for social, economic and environmental improvements to public services. In addition, citizens have also been able to develop projects of their own aimed at improving the quality of life in the city. But opening up public data banks won’t be enough for the cities of the future.

By 2020, Cisco is predicting that 50 billion devices in the world will be connected to the internet, creating an unprecedented level of potentially useful data. But, according to Duncan Wilson, Intel director of ICRI Cities in London, cities and firms won’t be able to take advantage of all that information if the infrastructure and hardware behind it can’t work together.

“There are some physical constraints to actually being able to deploy that number of devices, unless you start to look at different ways to get the data off those devices and at different communication strategies,” he explains. “One of the great things about the open data movement is that it laid some of the foundations; it’s starting to get people to understand that it’s good to be able to share resources.”

But, in the future, it won’t just be about sharing data, it’ll be about sharing infrastructure and improving communication networks to help both companies and councils to reduce the cost and complexity of smart city projects.

“For example, up in Enfield, we have what we call gateway devices for our air quality project. Multiple sensors can connect into these gateway devices, which then send the data up to the cloud, but the gateway itself can also do some local processing. That infrastructure is already being deployed on lamp posts etc., although there’s an expense in doing that,” says Wilson.

“We’ve now had a company that’s won a research project to deploy some car parking sensors and some of them are very close to the gateways, so they’re saying; ‘Can we connect our sensors into your gateways so that we can reduce the cost of the hardware?’ But, since it’s the councils that will have to maintain these platforms in the future, it also helps them to reduce the infrastructure,” he adds.

This sort of platform-sharing is still in the research phase right now. It won’t be easy to bring it into the mainstream, because there’s both the technical challenge of interoperability and the commercial challenge of how to negotiate the necessary relationships between different companies and city organisations.

If you can build a network of devices that can talk to each other and pull the data from them with improved communications networks, you’ll still then need to extract some sort of meaningful intelligence from all that information. This is an area that IBM sees as crucial for the future of smart cities.

“The next set of advances will be in algorithms; what we call cognitive systems. These are systems that can apply a level of intelligence that can cope with data involving number stuff as well as textural stuff, and then be able to make sense of that, enhancing and speeding the decision-making process,” Rashik Parmar, president of IBM’s Academy of Technology, explains.

Scott Cain, executive director of strategy, business development and communications at Future Cities Catapult, agrees.

“I think the big shift is going to be around the better use, not just of big data, but of rich data. Through doing insights work, ethnography work and world-class service design work, we’ll begin to get a much better understanding of how people want to live their lives and what the priorities are for them,” he states.

It might require the big technology players to come up with key communications advances and innovation in data management, but IBM’s Parmar and Intel’s Wilson believe that there’s going to be plenty of room for entrepreneurs and small companies.

“We would argue that there’s more opportunity for the entrepreneurs than for us. Because a lot of this is going back almost to cottage industries, where you want to address the needs of a place very precisely; understanding the city at a micro-level and then delivering value to that micro-ecosystem,” Parmar pursues. “It might be based on data from some big organisation, but delivering value at a very local, very specific space is where we see the opportunity happening.”

Wilson believes that small players will be important not just because of the micro ecosystems, but because smarter cities are about much more than just technology.

“It’s not just a technology solution; it’s about the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of cities. I think you will get a plethora of smaller players that are very successful in their own markets, which is why I think the interoperability side is so important,” he concludes.

With such a range of opportunities and investments available, backed both by business interests and political & social will, the future for smart cities is certainly looking bright.

Did you miss Part 1 of The growth of Britain’s smart cities? Read more about the strategies and projects that aim to put the UK on the smart cities map here.

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