Building a Smart City: where to start?

As a company working with several leading cities, including Edinburgh, on their ‘Smart City’ vision, we understand that despite the enormous potential it has, it can also be overwhelming for local authorities trying to step into the unknown. Today, many cities are only just beginning to utilise big data to help make urban management decisions. With that in mind, the utopian vision of a living, breathing entity within which cutting-edge technology helps residents interact with public services and utilities in an improved way, can seem far flung.

Furthermore, deciding how to take the first steps towards this end is fraught with its own challenges. Even otherwise well-intentioned civic leaders can become overwhelmed by the size, scope, and novelty of the undertaking. But, considering the technology, connectivity and knowledge required for such a project are relatively new onto the scene, perhaps that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

The Smart City Challenge

The challenge to build a Smart City is considered absolutely essential to meet the challenges of the future. The demands that such broad and long-term projects place upon local infrastructure are manifold. They require reliable digital connectivity capable of allowing for the real-time communication of connected devices such as sensors. They must involve the integration of technologies with operational methods that are frequently well-entrenched (and often, it must be said, rather dated). And they necessitate a level of inter-departmental coordination between various areas of municipal government that historically wasn’t necessary – or even, for that matter, possible.

But the good news is that the path towards the Smart City goal is becoming increasingly well-traveled – there are now many global examples of cities using these technologies to lead the way and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. As a business already helping several UK towns and cities on their own journeys towards technologically-enhanced urban management, we’re well placed to offer advice on how municipalities should be making their crucial first steps towards ‘Smart’ status. Here are our top three tips on moving from the (important) understanding of the Smart City’s potential, to the next step: beginning to actually realise it.

1. Connected thinking – Bringing departments together holistically

Unity between key municipal departments needs to be the name of the game if any such project is set to truly improve the way residents interact with their cities. This, of course, is easier said than done. Each department of a locality tends to have its own way of tackling problems and enacting change, with individual systems and structures to be navigated. Frequently, these bureaucracies, which may be deeply entrenched, can act as an early roadblock for Smart City projects. The good news is that by clearing out these brakes and blocks in the process of creating a cross-departmental entity, a more effective apparatus for making important future decisions will automatically take shape, leading to efficiency improvements even before the technological assistance of the ‘Smart City’ vision is truly realised.
Many cities across the globe are already looking at how they can group various departments of public works together, rethinking how operations and strategy might intersect in future. Often, this might take the initial form of an overseeing ‘Smart City Department’, which will then report directly to the mayor or an appointed city manager. The job of this department is to oversee the innovation process. Their day-to-day responsibilities will involve consulting with key figures from various city agencies, engaging them in the overarching Smart City project, hearing their issues and challenges, and bringing together relevant stakeholders to reach investment targets necessary to enact change. Any Smart City Department should also have an eye on demonstrating to the general public the benefits of the project, and the impact of the investment made on their behalf.

2. Lighting – The perfect infrastructure for enacting smart innovation

When considering where best to start making moves towards becoming a Smart City, local authorities frequently make the mistake of assuming that they have a ‘blank slate’ from which to construct something from nothing. In other words, that their area doesn’t have any infrastructure capable of delivering smart insights and so they must start from scratch. This is both right and wrong – right, in the sense that most municipalities won’t have truly IoT-ready connectivity and connected objects already installed, but wrong in the sense that nearly all of them will already have infrastructure that can be built upon to deliver impressive results, quickly. And this is an infrastructure that is reliable, powered, and covers the local area like a blanket. It is, simply put, lighting. Wherever citizens tend to go in a city, it’s a sound bet that there will be public lighting there. This provides an enviable base of assets (including, for example, street columns) upon which to install sensors with IoT technology.

Indeed, connected public lighting is a good place to start adopting smart technology, not just for the ease of using an existing infrastructure. By adopting what has now become recognised as ‘Smart Lighting’ – lighting that will dim when no pedestrians are in proximity – public support for smart city initiatives may be gained, or even in some cases, advocacy. Everybody has a personal energy bill, so it’s an immediately recognisable benefit to citizens – and particularly those with concerns for the environment – that energy will be saved in a fiscally responsible way. It’s also a very visible, and even an immediately gratifying way to adopt smart technology – city administrators and the public alike will see the technology at work when walking home at night.

And smart usage of energy is just the beginning. Sensors installed initially for that purpose can also, with the right connectivity (more on that to follow), become multipurpose, connecting to other civic services like traffic controls, street parking, air pollution detection and quality measurement, autonomous vehicle communication, roadway condition detection – and that’s just the potential uses that have been identified to date. A bright future as a Smart City can be jump-started by harnessing the power of light.

3. Connectivity – The foundation upon which digital cities are built

No Smart City vision can be realised without the appropriate connectivity upon which to construct a working digital infrastructure. Ultimately, the primary goal of a smart city is interconnection between different aspects of urban management, in order to provide one centralised information dashboard, through which data-driven insights can be gleaned and informed decisions made. But historically, this hasn’t been possible across the large areas covered by modern towns and cities. Wi-Fi connectivity, in the rare cases it is provided as a public service, has been patchy and unreliable in the past, making the concept of communicating devices across an entire city seem a far-flung fantasy. And mobile data simply isn’t equipped now to handle real-time ‘big data’ (link to big data blog) capture across a town or city’s circumference. That isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Instead, towns and cities will need to look to connectivity platforms ready for the challenges of the future, and compatible with the technologies that are likely to define it, such as 5G and Internet of Things. Smart City platforms are typically hosted in the cloud, which allows for new technologies to be developed and tested easily. Ideally, the perfect connectivity platform for building such a far-reaching project of a broad scope will need to be accessible across a town or city, allowing consumers, businesses, and connected devices to interact and communicate with each other. Furthermore, our platform uses small cell technology which can attach to a city’s lighting system, leading to widespread coverage and supporting technologies such as the aforementioned ‘Smart Lighting’.

Intechnologywifi’s Connected City Platform is expressly tailored to meet the challenges of building a Smart City. It combines all of the key areas required for advanced urban management into a complete platform, integrating connectivity, data capture, communications and engagement. Not only does our offering provide reliable, always-on blanket coverage over an entire town or city, but it also fully supports the harnessing of technologies such as IoT sensors. Information analytics and centralised control are equally possible, with a robust smart solution, bespoke to a given municipality. For further advice about how best to prepare your municipality for the arrival of Smart technologies, or to learn more about the uniqueness of our Connected City Platform, please get in touch.

Natalie Duffield

Natalie has spent 20 years working in the IT and Telecommunications industries alongside leading tech entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson. A confident, tactical, strategic thinker, and a dynamic CEO, Natalie has experience in a wealth of areas, including managed services, cloud computing, hosted services and outsourced infrastructure, data centre space, virtual server storage environments, telephony and networks.

Get In Touch

Whether you’re a local authority looking to provide public WiFi or seeking a connectivity solution for Smart Cities, the IoT or 5G / Small Cells in your town or city, or if you are interested in partnering with us around the Connected City Platform in any of our forthcoming town and city roll-outs, we’d love to explain more about who we are and what we do.

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