Smart cities: what’s so clever about them?

02 January 2020

The man on the Clapham omnibus should easily comprehend the benefits synonymous with smart cities.

Anything that is supposed to make our day-to-day lives more manageable, indeed more bearable in many cases, can only be a boon.

Now the UN has predicted that while today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, that proportion is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

This is making it critical for governments and other powerbrokers to put strategies in place to more effectively meet the needs of growing populations.

So, for the purposes of the Networking+ readership, just how will network managers and their teams benefit from a smart city?

“A ‘smart city’ is enabled with wide area wireless network infrastructure of substantial scale, capable of hosting and supporting the deployment and manage-ment of sensors and devices in a variety of organisation types and use cases,” says Nick Sacke, head of IoT and products at network services company Comms365.

“A network management team would be able to access and use this infrastructure to deploy and manage their own private network for devices, working for the betterment of their respective businesses and users.”

He says lighting, monitoring of energy use, temperature, humidity, security/alarms and other critical systems in buildings all could be co-ordinated as a service that the network management team could enable/offer to the operations teams and third party facilities management companies, “so as to be proactive in maintaining and protecting infrastructure”.

Matthew Hawkridge, development director at telemetry hardware and software vendor Servelec Technologies says smart cities are already providing network managers with unprecedented efficiencies and economic opportunities.

“That’s because smart technologies can change the nature and economics of infrastructure, reduce the cost of gathering information about usage patterns—and with an unprecedented volume of data, allow network managers to find new ways of optimising their existing systems,” he adds. “Smart cities rely on data gathered via thousands of smart sensors and other telemetry devices such as RTUs, which provide insights into how to manage assets, resources and services more efficiently. That means cost and efficiency benefits for a wide range of businesses that serve Smart cities. [Examples include] transportation firms, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime agencies and hospitals. Ultimately consumers also benefit from businesses being more efficient and responsive.”

Eric Law, vice president of EMEA sales at global network infrastructure provider CommScope, says to make things “smart” and improve overall efficiency, “we connect IoT devices through a network to the cloud” (and each other).

“Thus, anything ‘smart’ requires connectivity, both wired and wireless, at least in most cases,” he continues. “Once we connect all the eyes and ears (IoT sensors) of the world to the data centre brain, we can start generating intelligent data to drive new analytics and services.”

Law says that as the speed of connectivity increases, through the likes of 5G and more IoT devices are connected everywhere, “we are starting to blur the lines” between our typical domains like buildings, campuses and cities.

“For example, the weather sensors in our cities should feed that data to our buildings to cool or heat them more efficiently by pre-heating or cooling buildings during non-peak hours and drive up overall efficiencies,” he adds. “Essentially, smart cities are transforming into smart spaces that are connecting everything.”

He says that, today, cities are typically served by different networks built by traditional telcos, cable operators, internet companies like Google, neutral host providers, utilities and municipalities.

“As a result, there are disparate wireless and wireline networks and each time a new network is implemented, the city streets are being dug up again and again for installations,” Law continues. “Considering new and emerging possibilities, consulting with IoT and network connectivity vendors and planning for the long term through the development of smart cities will minimise network upgrades and disruptions to network management in the future.”

Now, let’s take a look at the technology currently available. “Low power wide area (LPWAN) IoT wireless infrastructure is capable of supporting millions of ‘smart’, battery powered and connected devices in the City,” says Sacke.

“These devices generate data from previously unconnected systems and assets that can be analysed and used to create insight which allow for immediate action. Once data starts flowing, future trends and projections start to emerge, which are able to enhance operational planning and maintenance programmes. In time, a live data blueprint of all the devices and systems becomes available, and this can be used to prioritise intervention and even track down faulty components in a system. Dan Bladen, CEO and co-founder of wireless charging tech company Chargifi, says that as IoT becomes the norm, technology networks will become more and more complex, with hundreds – if not thousands – of devices communicating at any given time. 

“Crucial to retaining control of these technologies is cloud-connected software which can be remotely managed and provides network managers with the real-time status of their network, including diagnostics,” he says.

“This is the best method for ensuring smart technology makes the role of network management seamless and pain-free.”

Hawkridge says smart cities are characterised by geographically spread assets all capable of generating massive amounts of information.

“The key to making the role of network managers easier is ensuring accurate data is captured and interpreted in real-time,” he continues. “Recent advances in technology assist in this area, helping to deliver improved efficiency, cost savings and longevity as well as, ultimately, better-quality service for people living and working in smart cities.”

He says transport is an area where smart cities can make a real difference. “This ranges from commuter information systems, control of pedestrian crossing lighting, traffic light system monitoring, through to street light monitoring and tunnel lighting and ventilation control,” he adds.

Indeed, Hawkridge says cities that go down the route of congestion charging will rely on smart city technology, too. “This will allow authorities to monitor congestion, traffic management, pollution and environmental systems as well as access and toll systems,” he adds.

“Recent weather events can be better managed as well.” He mentions Servelec’s TBox remote telemetry unit, which is used to monitor storm water.

The data can be used to activate alarms to activate storm defences before they breach critical assets.

Law says governments are seeking creative ways to improve services and quality of life. “Digital transformation uses technology for better transportation, law enforcement, waste management and workplace systems,” he says.

“Our customers are trying to figure out ways of tapping into the power of big data, IoT, artificial intelligence, cloud infrastructure and higher computing capabilities.”

Sacke also extols the virtues of smart buildings, which “will be feeding data to the network team” about resource demand and usage, assisting them in the active quantification, projection and management of user requirements.

“As more and more data is collected, trends can point to resource pinch points and potential system failures, creating extra insight, scale and operational agility for the team, and ultimately, happier users within the building,” he says.

Hawkridge believes smart buildings help network teams by allowing them to collect and analyse increasing amounts of data from a diverse range of assets. “Much of this information was previously not available,” he adds.

“We are already deploying technology that will enable water organisations to adapt in real time to customer needs – such as smart metering, showing demand in real time, identifying leaks, impact of leakage on specific customers, detecting problems in the sewer network before it becomes a pollution event, amongst others.”

He says that “likewise”, network teams could create systems, facilities and physical assets tailored to user requirements such as security protocols, pricing models and usage among others.

According to Law, by encouraging the use of automation and data analytics, smart buildings enable operators and professionals to enhance productivity and maintain energy efficiency by optimising equipment and related processes.

As these applications evolve, the connectivity linking a building’s IT and operational technology (OT) systems make it possible for business occupants to maintain a conducive work environment.

The connected systems can regulate security, environmental conditions, lighting, communications and other factors – and have become critical to enabling efficiency and effectiveness within network teams. He says a smarter city leverages tech-nology to promote sustainable develop-ment, focussing on particularly intelligent technologies that will make life healthier and safer for its citizens.

“For example, 50% of smart city objectives are focused on climate change, resilience and sustainabil-ity, leading to more successfully sustainable cities,” he says.

“What’s more, by utilising data from smart technologies, urban areas will see a 30% increase in energy efficiency within 20 years, and through regulating light levels with smart street lighting, public energy costs will also be reduced.”

Hawkridge says the potential benefits and efficiencies to business from smart cities “are becoming better understood”, with an important area being improved sustainability. “Smart cities can improve many of the inefficiencies that currently occur, including RTUs to control & monitor critical sets and technology that detects leaks and blockages,” he says.

“Another example is appropriate deployment of RTUs that enables pump energy consumption to be optimised. In addition, advances in smart sensors, loggers and telemetry technology means data can be captured and analysed from pumps and valves to allow them to optimise and adjust their rate of activity according to the requirements.”

Sacke argues that there is research showing that smart cities can potentially make a significant contribution to urban sustainability; data gathering can be used to improve operational management as well as on the ground performance.

“We’ve seen and are involved in programmes that leverage ‘smart’ solutions for parking, waste management, environmental monitoring and utilities; all of which are already contributing to sustainability globally through the roll-out of city-wide IoT networks,” he says.

Nevertheless, Sacke concedes that there are challenges linked to reliance on technology intervention as collecting and using urban data needs to be managed within a proper framework to promote engagement and trust.

“Therefore, establishing new digital teams/departments within local government structures responsible for IoT that work across all departments – not in their own silos and citizen engagement and participation in planning, feedback and auditing of the initiatives,” he says. “These are highly recommended by many global organisations including the UN.”

It’s also important for enterprises to know if and how they will be able to leverage the data being collected by the smart city to better understand their target demographic and the space itself to provide a more succinct service. Hawkridge says an “interesting development” is smart water grids.

“This offers combined sustainability, safety and water quality benefits by allowing operators to more accurately monitor the quantity of water being piped into cities to ensure that it is not over-allocated for what its eventual usage,” he adds.

“Another is a city’s energy infrastructure which could benefit from ‘smart meters’ – and here electric or gas meters could provide real-time data, via an internet connection, to the consumer and the utility company regarding each user’s consumption. This will enable better management of electricity supplies by responding to live demand, which will reduce the overall cost and likelihood of power cuts.”

Sacke mentions initiatives in large UK cities to make data available to stakeholders other than the government. “A ‘digital twin’ of London’s infrastructure is a project already underway to provide comprehensive, real-time digital simulation models via artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, enabling insights into physical assets and services,” he says.

“Projects like this provide substantial commercial value to businesses looking to own and manage assets within a city, as well as delivering targeted services to certain target demographics. Mechanisms such as ‘digital trusts’ for the accessing and exchange of data in secure, regulated ways are already in the planning phase. Such ‘information exchanges’ are essential to leveraging the value of data for businesses and local governments.”

If any technology is going to help make the smart city what it’s hyped to be then it’s 5G, but will it enhance every smart city application beyond what network managers already have at their disposal?

“5G will be the ‘glue’ that binds the elements of local networks, infrastructure and processes together, creating safer, easier and more pleasing living for citizens and company employees,” says Sacke.

Law opines that in the future, cities will use new applications and the IoT to enrich the lives and safety of their residents and visitors.

However, he says for these innovations to be made possible, smart city applications will need networks that are much faster, offer lower latency, and integrate well with IoT devices. “Smart cities will be built on fibre,” Law says. “As governments around the world invigorate broadband with investment in digital infrastructure, the number of 5G connections is expected to exceed one billion by 2025.

He says, “most people think of 5G as a new wireless service for faster smartphones”, but it is also a medium that enables a city to become smarter.

“Citizens and visitors will demand virtual reality, augmented reality and autonomous vehicle applications also be integrated into city services and capabilities,” Law continues.

“5G holds the promise of superfast download speeds and unparalleled performance that will support these technologies, as well as the move towards connected communities. The next few years are critical to building networks that will meet the demand.”

Law says 5G networks will be key for the integration of technology into city services as these networks of the future will bring sophisticated connectivity to edge IoT devices with higher speeds, more machine-to-machine connections and very low latencies, therefore undoubtedly making the lives of network management teams easier.

“5G will enable new or enhanced services at a much faster pace, making it possible for teams to meet the growing demands and increasing expectations that surround the development of smart city technology,” he adds.

While this is all positive reading for network management teams, Kevin Brown, senior vice president of innovation and CTO at Schneider Electric, secure power division says 5G has some way to go before they can get the best from it.

“With regards to the hype around the build-up, I tend to be more of a sceptic at this point,” he says.

“That’s because it’s unclear how fast it is really going to happen, especially when you consider the sheer volume of data centre infrastructure required to deliver the service. For 5G to deliver ultra-low latency applications it is totally dependent on edge computing and this is even more important in smart cities.”

Then, of course, there’s security sur-rounding the prevalence of Wi-Fi hotspots.

“There is an elevated security threat because of the significant increase in the number of interconnected devices,” says Hawkridge.

“In fact, the roll out of IoT technology has resulted in thousands of connected systems being embedded in a city’s critical infrastructures. In terms of security we see our role as making sure that loggers and RTUs smart sensors are built using (insert cyber security requirements/standards here) securely. There is also a shared responsibility between the manufacturer and users – with the former issuing timely software updates for security issues, and the latter applying these.”

Sacke notes “significant risks” associated with the use of public Wi-Fi hotspots which redirect web traffic to the ‘captive portal’ page on the first connection - the point where users agree to terms and conditions or enter a password.

“The issue with this is that the portal in question is a website outside the companies virtual private network (VPN) and while you’re entering these details, your device is open to attack,” he continues.

“So-called ‘untrusted’ Wi-Fi hotspots can alter or re-direct browser traffic as it is sent and allow access to data stored in temporary caches; you may be asked to agree to location tracking when you sign up. Tier 1 mobile operators are already tracking the movements of millions of smartphone users through the MAC address of their devices when they pass within range of their hotspots, which is data that local government and commercial organisations pay for. Strong encryption of all data sent by devices and policies regarding the use of public hotspots is a necessity to mitigate against these and other risks.”

For Law, the risks apply to the legacy infrastructure in place today, courtesy of mobile phones and cellular watches connecting to cell towers and accessing the location of the user through triangulation.

“We therefore need to address this question from a different angle,” says. “For all this and future connectivity, we will need robust guidelines around privacy and data gathering. European regulations around “the right to be forgotten” is a first step on this journey. Clear rules of engagement around what data is captured, what can be stored and what can be made public or opted out by users and governmental oversight are needed on this digital journey.”

Going forward, Law says “we as an industry also need to do a better job” at sharing with society the good that this technology brings to bare.

“A smartwatch tracking a child being abducted, warning of an imminent heart attack or alerting staff of an elderly person falling down is the type of application that will improve our quality of life and should not only be described as an invasion of privacy, but an enabler.”

This has hopefully filled the lacuna in your smart city knowledge and provided a window to the (near) future.