October 21, 2014
You either love big cities or you hate them.
Sure, all that noise, pollution, traffic, congestion and the high costs of living is a pain, but then there are more jobs, more schools, more hospitals and more services.
It is why cities account for 75% of energy consumption, 50% of the world’s population and 80% of carbon emissions as populations shift from rural areas to urban centres.
As Arun Bikshesvaran, chief marketing officer Ericsson North America, notes this migration also means cities are straining to keep building and managing infrastructure while dealing with disparate demands. Populations are skewed with younger populations who have different service needs than the elderly, for example, stretching resources.
There has to be a better way and there is; smarter is better and that means leveraging the power of ICT.
Smart Cities, or what Ericsson calls the Networked Society, is a collaboration around infrastructure, transport, commerce and urban management, all connected, just as we have connected our PCs, phones and other devices to the Internet. More importantly it is a concept where data is not proprietary, it is shared, at least at the governmental level.
This convergence of technology, connectivity and data is the critical next phase of the digital age and is advent of what is called the Internet of Things or IoT.
It is an umbrella term in which a myriad of devices are connected to the Internet and their location noted, Machine to Machine (M2M) in which software reacts to a given set of circumstances without human intervention and Big Data and the Cloud, which has the ability to capture, store and examine never-ending streams of data and execute decisions in real time or anticipate events based on that analysis.
The road ahead is challenging but the potential palpable, says Warren Tomlin, partner, Global Business Services at IBM Corp. noting perhaps the most frustrating and yet exciting aspect is that it is all feasible now. Both the technology and the data already exist.
“What we – the IBMs of the world – need to do is stitch it all together,” he says.
Today’s cars, for example, are full of sensors capturing gigabytes of data. In a Smart City some of that data could be streamed constantly in aggregate, that is, with the personal information stripped out.
It could be used for analysis and experimentation to learn the relationship between traffic patterns and accidents for example, to alert in dash GPS to suggest alternate, less travelled routes in the case of back ups or to warn of hazards ahead.
Connective traffic lights, even streetlights could be synchronized to changing traffic patterns, saving energy and time turning on only when someone approaches. Police meanwhile could check the data to see lights turned on when to track suspects leaving a crime, a form of electronic bread crumbs.
There is still work yet to be done, though, Tomlin warns.
“We have to decide also what is relevant because we don’t need all the data so we have to know the outcome of what we want,” he says.
For cities and businesses there are clear advantages. Smart parking systems in San Francisco alert motorists to nearby spots they may have otherwise bypassed on a main street shopping district, perhaps dissuading them from going to mall instead.
Even a coffee shop can establish a smart relationship with
customers’ mobiles, knowing when they usually want coffee, how they want it and with what snack they like, even pushing discount offers to them to increase their frequency of patronage when they are in the area via a technology called Location Based Service (LBS).
Eric Simmons, general manager of machine to machine (M2M) at Rogers Communications Inc. says the company has been in the space for about 11 years and is seeing practical applications.
“With RioCan (Canada biggest shopping centre landlord) for example, we provide guest WiFi and traffic analysis to enable them to know who is going into what store,” he says.
The test program is part of Roger’s strategy in LBS which notes where a mobile user is, what time it is and then extrapolates what they might be interested in. If it is morning, they might want a deal on coffee and a bagel. At lunch, a different combination from a nearby restaurant or in the evening, tickets for a show or an eCoupon for a discount if used in a specified time frame.
With RioCan it is about getting shoppers to explore other parts of the mall to ensure those tenants get traffic too using a range of strategies, including push offers and marketing.
This overall trend is both organic – happening by itself – yet also structured, notes Rick Huijbregts, vice president of industry transformation with Cisco Systems Canada Inc.
“It is the things we do not expect,” he said. “The taxi industry is being redefined by applications like Uber which are killing the traditional taxi model and opening up new routes to revenue to those who were not able to afford to play and can now participate. It is incredibly disruptive but it creates incredible opportunity and people should go into it with eyes wide open.”
Bikshesvaran also holds up Uber as the perfect example of connectivity being a game changer.
“What it boils down to is value,” he says. “If there is value people will pay attention.”
What Networked Communities or Smart Cities can do is better match demand to supply, he adds, pointing to Uber’s dispatch model which can be applied to many other businesses, from fast food delivery to online ordered grocery pick up. “It is a fulfillment service that matches supply to demand using ICT.”
Matching supply to demand can also influence behaviours, Bikshesvaran says. For example, he points out that an Ericsson-sponsored business school competition last year was won by an Argentinean school which tackled the problem of subsidized electricity in Buenos Aires.
“The government was subsidizing electricity but it was unsustainable,” he says. “Consumers had no idea how much they consumed or how much electricity really cost.”
Simply phasing out the subsidy would be politically dangerous so the solution suggested was to scale back demand using smart metering and two way communication with users on their consumption and pricing.
“The plan showed they could get pay back in 30 months,” he says, adding a local telecom company is investing in making the scheme a reality.
The backbone of all this connectivity, says Huijbregts, is broadband and that is one of the hurdles. All that data has to get where it is most useful: municipalities need ways to transmit data from sensors on light standards, sewer pipes, water mains and the power grid and then analyze them in real time to spot trends like traffic jams, power outages or flooding.
“We have to think of broadband as being as important as the electrical grid,” he says.
Indeed there is growing demand for ubiquitous connectivity: GenY sees work as a thing, not a place, preferring to work close to home or at home, negating the need for a car and taking the pressure of roads and transit. They are also less likely to worry about privacy and offer their own mobile and behavioural pattern data to the Cloud.
“That is getting to be less of an issue,” he says. “People are willing to give up information if they perceive a value.”
It is that same value proposition which will drive Smart Cities, both from a government administration perspective and from an enterprise view because it has the ability to reduce costs and, in the case of business, drive traffic.
Simmons says Montreal, for example, is about to launch a “smart” snow plow system which uses fleet tracking technology on 200 snow plows and dump trucks fitted with GPS sensors. The $6.7 million program will track which streets are getting plowed first, what dump trucks are picking up snow and where they are taking it.
“They will eventually be able to tell people what streets are getting plowed next so they can move their cars,” said Simmons. The overall goal is more cost efficient and timely snow removal.
Parking meters can similarly be wirelessly connected, he added, and programmed remotely to offer market pricing with cheaper short terms rates for lunchtime to allow access to street level businesses or higher prices for evening events to encourage transit use.
This is more than a digital revolution. It is a societal evolution but it is not happening overnight. Investment is needed, political concerns accommodated, protocols must be established, boundaries set and transparencies agreed to; but it is happening and Canada is already behind.
In a Ericsson 2013 ranking of 31 connected cities based on impact to economy, environment and social impact, the only North American cities noted were New York (number 8) and Mexico City (number 23). Stockholm, London and Singapore took the first three spots.
“It is happening in phases,” says Bikshesvaran. “It is happening in about 100 cities where the momentum is strong enough that it is irreversible. With the benchmarks we have, we will start to see how the quality of life changes. It is also a good thing that it is happening all over the world. It is mushrooming and these are showcases for the rest of the world.” C+
Ian Harvey is a Toronto-based freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.