The missing piece of the Smart City puzzle

Reports | Technology
Nick Sacke

The percentage of people living in cities has risen sharply over the years with an estimated 65% of the world’s population projected to be living in cities by 2040.

As cities start to prepare for exploding population numbers, Smart City technology has risen to prominence, with the promise of delivering actionable data to help cities cope operationally with the increasing and varied demands of citizens for services.

Across the globe we have seen dozens of Smart City projects, yet the development of such projects in the UK has been relatively modest in scale and pace, with trials in Milton Keynes, London, Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge still in their pilot phases. However, the race to achieve truly Smart Cities should not be a sprint; and it is not necessarily the first adopters that will reap the greatest benefits.

The current landscape

There is no doubt that a good number of cities that have rolled out smart projects are already realising tangible benefits. India’s 100 Smart Cities’ goal is a great example of where the technology has been rolled out widely and quickly with cities like Chennai successfully using smart, integrated IoT solutions to tackle traffic congestion issues.

However, a compelling aspect of these projects – one that the UK’s Smart Cities could learn from – is that many of the early projects adopted a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. That is, flood a city with pervasive connectivity, sensors and data storage and analytics infrastructure at scale from the beginning, thereby ensuring that the platform to support Smart projects is immediately available, providing a fertile ground for small and large businesses and the academic community to innovate, research, develop applications and (most importantly) commercialise services at scale for actual use cases that deliver tangible operational benefits.

This offers a lesson for the UK as it continues to roll out and develop its own Smart Cities: the most successful will combine a scalable, operationally aware and efficient technical  environment to nurture innovation, which combined with academic research into the most suitable applications for IoT use cases delivers commercialisation and an outcome.

Blending academia and innovation

Academia is the foundation of Smart City projects, with many developed in partnership with educational institutions. The overarching advantage of this partnership is that it ensures well planned, credible, structured projects that take a scientific approach to adding value to cities and city planning.

Academia provides the research design that ensures innovation is aligned to functional solutions that tackle key issues to benefit the population, such as reduced traffic congestion, reduced water and energy consumption and better waste management. However, often this stage is powered by grants and funding and so a further step is needed to make these solutions self-sufficient, with long term commercial viability.

Why a commercial mindset will give UK Smart Cities the edge

The commercialisation of Smart City projects is a key component in pushing them beyond their pilot stages. Companies working on Smart City solutions need to drive both valuable and actionable insights, to offer commercially viable IoT that can both add value and have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Identifying the right pain points is crucial, before addressing them in the best way possible. Sustainability issues are an obvious starting point as they offer the opportunity not only to benefit the environment, but with lighting alone making up 19% of the world’s total electricity consumption for example, offer a significant cost saving opportunity.

An example of success in this field is Yokohama in Japan, which has been dubbed a Smart City through its energy program. Suffering from a stark rise in population that caused construction and pollution increases, with collaboration from the city government, private sector, citizens and household brand names, a pilot was rolled out in just 4,000 homes and resulted in a 20% decrease in power consumption. This Smart Project started with innovation born from necessity, but also took on board government and citizen interests and provided a valuable, measurable, commercial outcome.

By combining the three elements of academia, innovation and commercialisation, we improve Smart City programmes, and the potential for those outside cities to benefit. The commercial aspect results in a value-driven and scalable model, which becomes a technology that is possible to roll out across whole regions – even countries, allowing towns and villages to reap the same benefits as their Smart City neighbours.

The UK and beyond

A recent study by Catapult Future Cities states that there is a huge growth in the Smart City market in Asia. Growth is projected to rise from $50 billion to $220 billion by 2020 as the industry shifts.There’s even talk that by 2050, the UN is projecting an extra 2.5 billion people will be living in cities, with 90% of that growth coming from Asia and Africa. So where’s Europe in all of this and how can we remain competitive?

For Smart Cities in the UK to deliver on the promise of digital transformation, which includes more efficient living, better health as well as greater prosperity, city authorities and their attitude to strategy and planning are critical.  The UK must project growth of these technologically driven initiatives based on the sound concept of global competitiveness, in addition to the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

In order to achieve this wider vision, one danger that could hamper successful Smart City-led innovation is the dreaded ‘funding silos’ which hold the funding mechanism for Smart City projects in separate departments. Without joined-up thinking and a collaborative approach to commercialising smart parking in parallel with traffic and waste management initiatives, for example, progress will remain limited. It is therefore only the cities that have a centralised IoT funding mechanism to support collaboration that will make significant headway; and that is all down to leadership.

While growth in the UK market is expected, it is predicated on these key building blocks of leadership and strategy, skills and capacity, collaboration, and funding. Without this coordinated approach, growth is likely to happen at a much slower pace. With the Asian market already addressing these issues, time is of the essence.

The outcomes of a successful Smart City project should include better health and well-being for citizens, paired with global market competitiveness. The longer digitalisation is delayed, the less competitive it becomes. The IoT community is ever hopeful that UK Smart Cities deliver on their promises, but the industry can only be of help if it’s part of a larger collaborative approach, includes joined-up thinking, the correct resources, a centralised government funding structure and the support of carriers and stakeholders.

Written by Nick Sacke, Head of IoT and Products, Comms365.

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