Feature Story

Retrofitting Smart Cities

by Jason Deign

Building a smart city from scratch is easy compared to the task of introducing intelligence into an existing urban environment.

Smart cities are on the rise. According to a recent study, the number of smart cities across the world is set to quadruple between 2013 and 2025. Many of these should be new city developments. India, for example, is planning to spend US$1.13 billion on 100 of them.

But what of the rest?

While new cities may help deal with the blistering urban population growth rates predicted for Africa and Asia over the next decade, for most policymakers the issue is not how to create a smart city from scratch but how to add intelligence to the dumb infrastructure already in place. It is not easy, explains Steve Hilton, co-founder and managing director of the Internet of Things (IoT) consultancy MachNation.

"First of all, those pesky people living in cities makes it difficult to retrofit smart city solutions because you can't just ask people to leave town while you implement solutions that might impact their lives," he says.

"Second, cities generally have infrastructure under the management of different departments, so it requires a lot of project planning and integration. Third, cities have security, privacy, and legal concerns about IoT solutions that might impact people, businesses, and safety."

Nevertheless, there are simple measures city planners can take to improve the intelligence of services. "Some simple solutions would include connected parking meters, lighting management systems, and connected public transit," recommends Hilton.

And there are clear benefits to making the effort. Ask Vicente Guallart Furio, chief architect for the city council in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia in Spain. "In Barcelona we see it as having a double bottom line, which is economic and social," he says.

"On one hand, information technologies can be used to create a home healthcare network, to create micro-networks to support disadvantaged persons, or to make the governance of the City more transparent."

On the other hand, he adds: "They can also improve the efficiency of mobility across the city, street lighting, and environmental control. We work with an integrated vision for the improvement of the quality of life for people and of the efficiency of urban services."

Guallart, who sees IT as being as critical to modern cities as electricity, sanitation, and public transport, acknowledges that it can be difficult to implement a smart city strategy in an existing urban environment. But it is important to go beyond just upgrading services, he says.

Barcelona's bus system is a case in point. The city used to have 108 bus lines that followed seemingly arbitrary routes. This is now being replaced with a network of 28 lines arranged in a grid.

"More than improving the old system with technology, we are re-designing it and then using technology to make it more usable and transparent," says Guallart.

His main message to other city planners is to think big. "You have to have a global strategy for the city," he advises. "Smart cities should not just involve partial measures or vertical sensor systems. In Barcelona we have defined a strategy based on taking information to each point of the city, just like any other urban infrastructure. So there may be Wi-Fi across the city's public spaces and that can be used to connect current and future technologies."

Another tip is that different government departments should each contribute to the budgets for technology integration, so that no opportunity is missed to add intelligence to the city infrastructure.

In Barcelona, which has a leading role in the City Protocol Society, this work is ongoing. Lamp posts in the emblematic Passeig de Gràcia now double up as Wi-Fi access point supports, for example.

Such initiatives mark Barcelona out as being at the vanguard of smart city development, says Hilton. "Cities like Barcelona, San Francisco, and Chicago are taking an integrated approach to IoT," he believes.

"They are integrating applications for public transit, parking, lighting, security surveillance, public space management, port management, tourism services, and other aspects of smart cities."

For Hilton, that puts these retrofitted urban environments at the front of the queue for the next big thing in technology: the Internet of Everything. "This integration of applications is one of the signs of development of the Internet of Everything as defined by MachNation," he says.


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