The deficit in understanding of smart cities
There is much interest and conversation around Smart Cities these days. More often than not (as experience has proven) the need for smarter governance in a city is triggered by events that could have been avoided. These events range from major traffic snarls, flooding, epidemic breakouts, devastating fires, road rage, terror attacks and more. The result could be anything from stranded citizens to dead citizens.
Across the world, infrastructure assets that support municipal services, such as electricity, water, and gas supply, transport networks, and healthcare, are aging and becoming obsolete. It is now a clarion call for the government, regulators, and asset owners and operators to either replace the infrastructure or to improve the efficiency of existing assets. Asset automation is considered the cheaper option. But these projects are incredibly complex and can often go wrong, fail to deliver the required improvement, or are quickly outmoded.
Too many times though individual pieces of technology are mistaken for being a complete smart infrastructure. For example, by failing to identify the requirements of their cities, some authorities have deployed video surveillance systems that do not support any of the citizen-focused functionality. Much of the benefit that such a system would deliver would include citizen alert systems and automatic deployment of city security squads to places where a potential threat has been detected. Smart projects are often connected to other aspects of infrastructure, and should be thought of as a platform made up of layers of sub-systems, the success of which relies on the optimization of all the sub-systems that support it.
We need a fuller understanding of what constitutes a Smart City. Without that understanding we may start creating over-engineered monoliths which may be even more unresponsive and costly.
The anatomy of a smart city
Plato talked about the city as a corporeal body. Thereafter many experts have compared the city to a living organism. You can compare the fiber optic cables to nerves the subway tunnels to thick jugular veins, the roads and by lanes as the arteries and veins – in fact if we dissect the viscera of any city we can find parts that emulate to those in the human anatomy.
A team of physicists and economists led by Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute recently set out to answer these questions. It turns out that, in many respects, cities act just like creatures. They obey the same metabolic laws that govern every organism. Their infrastructure follows a distinctly biological design, which helps explain why cities are able to grow. (Source: seedmagazine.com).
The smart city is best defined as a citizen focused framework incorporating different systems that must be orchestrated to deliver the outcomes of sustainability, security, citizen well-being and economic development. These essentially tie together preordained city objectives and city domains on the one hand and different applications and technologies that go to support the domains on the other.
As is evident, no single technology can enable a smart infrastructure for cities.
Geographical Information systems provide the geo spatial agencies to get a contextual view and pin point events. This is just not a map pointing exercise but a way to understand the interaction between various parts of a city – be it roads, buildings, heritage structures and surrounding topology. This can help authorities not only plan but also respond to events that may happen in the city.
Collaboration and workflow technologies help different agencies within a city to coordinate the efforts reducing conflicts and risk.
Video Surveillance technologies can help identify patterns (from potential traffic build ups to unattended objects that could be potential explosive devices). This when combined with analytics and workflow can trigger standard operating processes required for controlling the situation in advance of its occurrence.
Sensors can be used to track and curb pollution, prevent floods by sensing water levels.
Going from awareness to action
Smart cities are pervading every form of government. However they will definitely put new demands on these governments – those that require a new vision and the will to execute. The long term success of such programs will depend upon their ability to adapt to changing citizen demands, the proactive initiatives of businesses, the participation of citizens and of course the intent and actions of the political leadership.