Getting smarter

Eric Woods, research director at Navigant Research, spoke to Portal about how smart cities are evolving and the challenges and opportunities ahead

As a research director at Navigant Research, Eric Woods is leading the company’s coverage of smart cities. In this role he brings together his research experience in smart grids, smart water networks, smart transport and smart buildings. He has more than 20 years of experience as an analyst and consultant on new technology trends, including in-depth research in the areas of IT infrastructure, data analytics, knowledge management, public sector IT and cleantech innovation.

Prior to his speaking engagements at European Utility Week in Barcelona, Spain, in November 2016, Portal spoke to Woods about some of the facets of smart cities that are now developing.

Which are the biggest advances or challenges when it comes to disruptive technologies with applications in smart cities?

The idea of the smart city brings together three central policy issues for city leaders: the need to deliver efficient city services, improve sustainability, and stimulate economic development. Against those policy objectives, we can map a broad range of technological innovations in energy, transport, city infrastructure, water, buildings, and other areas. It is a complex picture covering many different service areas and many different technologies and solutions. So what we are seeing is disruptive technologies having an impact at many different levels.

But if we are talking about across-the-board disruptive technologies, then there are two developments that are fundamental in changing the way we think about cities. The first is urban connectivity – without ubiquitous, reliable, high capacity communications, none of this discussion would be happening. Mobile communications are not a new development of course, but now, with increased coverage and the emergence of cheaper devices that can use these networks, there is a much stronger foundation for smart city initiatives.

The second, which goes hand in hand with improvements to connectivity, is the collection of city data. Clearly, the advantage of connectivity is the ability to pull in more data on more aspects of city operations, and increasingly in real time – and that changes our picture of a city and how it works. We are now moving towards a very different concept of how a city functions. That is true if we are talking about improving energy efficiency, looking at mobility patterns and how we design transport systems, or demographic changes and their impact on future city services.

We are seeing the impact of these developments already if you just look at the management of a leading city like London, but many other cities are also looking to ramp up what they do in terms of the exploitation of data. As an example of how this is already having an impact, we can look at improvements made to city transport systems. We almost take for granted how much has changed in the way transport services are provided in big cities: instant information on the availability of mobility services, flexible payment (and mass data collection) through multi-service payment cards like Oyster, the introduction of congestion charging systems, and so on. Many of these changes have happened gradually, so the scale of innovation isn’t always recognised.

Another area in which we are already seeing change is urban energy. Take, for example, the emergence of smart meters, more intelligent distribution networks and a whole range of energy management technologies. And, of course, cities are becoming increasingly interested in promoting renewable energy.

We are also seeing an impact on cities through the broader deployment of internet of things (IoT) solutions in areas such as smart street lighting, intelligent waste collection, and environmental monitoring and so forth. As these solutions emerge from a pilot phase into real deployments the instrumentation of the city is beginning to accelerate even faster.

There is a tendency for policy to play catch-up with disruptive technologies. Is this getting better, or worse?

That is an interesting question. In terms of broader strategies, forward-thinking cities understand the potential of technology to help tackle tough issues like congestion. But actually turning that awareness into practical interventions is still difficult for many because there is no clear roadmap for how to do that in a city, or a best way to make use of the data available.

In terms of understanding what that means regarding how to intervene, and what can actually be done, we are still almost in the experimental phase. Cities do take this very seriously; cities like Singapore, Chicago, New York and London have been very interested in what the possibilities are around this new data. Yet, there is still a long way to go, as cities learn how to use big data analysis to drive more effective interventions in complex problems like social deprivation, traffic congestion, or public safety.

Many cities now understand that there is an opportunity to really understand how the city operates using big data, and they are looking to work with partners who can help exploit that data – such as local universities, technology and service suppliers and utilities, among others.

How much of an issue is security?

Security is certainly at the top of the agenda in many discussions. On the energy side of things, we have seen security become a significant concern with regard to smart meters and smart grids for some years now, and the industry has had to deploy new skills and processes to manage these new security challenges. We are now seeing similar issues across a wider range of applications for managing city infrastructure and services.

Cities will be looking to the utility, transport, telecommunications, and IT industries as the front line defence in terms of making sure that new technologies are secure. It is important to understand that security is not an issue that will ever go away, and so the efforts to remain ahead of potential attackers, and also what to do when (not if) there is a breach, must be ongoing.

So there is a huge amount of pressure on both the communications and IT industries, as well as service and infrastructure suppliers, to make the necessary investments to ensure that they are delivering secure systems to cities. This is where much of the burden will lie.

It is not only a technology issue, of course; it is also about process design and management principles. Many security breaches are the result of human error, and that is something that is harder to protect against, particularly when you’re developing systems in areas that are not used to being highly connected and open to those vulnerabilities – like street lighting and waste collection. There is little doubt that problems will be encountered, and how cities and industries respond is going to be the key factor here. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a long learning process.

Regardless, however, the change will not stop, because the nature of connectivity is changing the nature of the city. Devices are already connected, and many more are coming with embedded connectivity as default; so it is important for cities to have the right policies and in-house skills and to work closely with their industry partners.

As smart cities will bring together new approaches from a variety of areas – energy and utilities, urban planning, the IoT, transport, waste and recycling, etc. – is enough being done to ensure a necessarily broad yet comprehensive multidisciplinary/multisectoral approach, particularly in areas such as street lighting, which is not typically connected?

In some ways, it is one of the basic premises of the smart city projects because, if not, we’re just talking about smart energy or smart transport and so on. The smart city brings together these elements as part of an holistic urban innovation and technology policy.

The way things intersect in a city matter. The energy sector, for instance, is very aware of how important this is because it’s not just about renewables, it’s not just about electric vehicles, it’s not just about smart meters – it’s about this whole new energy picture that has emerged in recent years.

There is a lot of thinking going on about how to develop more cross-sector approaches. We are seeing progress already in what I would call ‘loosely coupled’ integration: looking at how to pull multiple and diverse data sources together to deliver new insights into the city. This is notable as cities look to go beyond their initial investment in open data projects – focusing not just on the amount of data but also getting better quality data, how it can be used to the benefit of the city, and how more parties can be involved in providing and exploiting that data. As they develop these approaches, cities reach the point where there’s a possibility of doing useful analysis that combines data from different sectors. There is a strong sense that adoption of this more data-centric approach is beginning to accelerate and momentum will gather over the next few years.

Attempting to develop a more closely integrated view of cross-sector services is more difficult. There are probably intrinsic organisational limits here. There is often talk about the problems of siloed operations, but siloes exist in just about any organisation, never mind across organisations. It is important to point out that the siloes aren’t there just to make things difficult. They are there because 90% of the time people get on with their own jobs – and that’s particularly true if you’re managing a complex energy or transport system. As such, sometimes the emphasis being placed on what level of integration is necessary is unrealistic.

But there is a sense that we will begin to see new types of integration emerge to deliver new services. For example, when we look at electric vehicle charging demands and how that interplays with renewable energy – there has to be a more holistic picture of these interconnections as we go forward.

There is an argument that new and retrofitted smart cities create uneven geographic development and that they further marginalise farmers, informal workers, micro-entrepreneurs and indigenous people living in villages, small towns and poor urban neighbourhoods. How many social/human elements are properly taken into account? How could the digital divide be better managed?

That is interesting because any discussion of ‘smart cities’ should – but doesn’t always – necessitate a discussion of ‘smart countrysides’. In some ways, cities are responsible for their hinterland. Any meaningful sustainability programme needs to span this divide.

This is evident in transport planning, for example. When cities discuss transport plans, what happens within the city is only a part of the picture. You can rarely just solve a problem in the city, you also have to look at the implication for those coming in from the suburbs and from across the wider city region.

In terms of the technology divide between the city and the country, that is starting to be addressed. With more flexible networking options, including things like low power networks and cheaper sensors, we will see a greater use of smart technologies in rural areas and in the agricultural sector.

Of course, there are often divisions within cities themselves: there can be highly innovative areas, while in other parts of the city the population is living in poor housing, with inefficient transport links and little broadband access. That is not a smart city, and so we need to better understand how innovative solutions can have a broad applicability across a city, rather than focusing on showcase projects in the central business district.

It must be understood that while it is right to focus on the importance of cities to the growth of new technologies, it must be an inclusive vision. Cities need to ensure that the benefits of innovation are available to all parts of the community and beyond.

Are there areas of best practice that Europe can learn from other regions and countries, such as India, for example, or are they learning from us?

There is a bit of both. Obviously, there are cities across the world that have made significant investment in smart city development and have done so for a number of years. Cities like Singapore, Copenhagen, Barcelona, New York or Dubai, for example, are taking different approaches with different priorities, but they are all keen to be leaders in their own way. European cities can certainly learn from these cities and from other cities around the world. There is certainly a global dialogue taking place and I find cities are looking to learn from their peers across the world.

But of course, shared history, similar economic positions, and indeed the physical shape of Europe’s cities mean that they are looking closely at each other, but that’s just because they have a number of issues in common.

Where can we expect areas of progress moving forwards?

I’m somewhat amazed at the continued momentum around smart cities, and it is now clearly a global development. European interest has remained very strong, but in the last couple of years there has been a big push in the US, and we have seen further developments in China, India and many other Asian countries, in the Middle East, and more recently Australia too.

I think an area where we are going to see considerable progress in the next few years will be the innovative use of new city data streams to improve urban services. As I mentioned, we are already seeing a growing emphasis on the development of the necessary analytic skills to exploit the growing amounts of detailed city data – and we are going to see that having a much greater impact on both forward planning and day-to-day operations.

Technologies like intelligent street lighting are moving relatively quickly from emerging technology to a mature and accepted element of city infrastructure. So we are already seeing progress on the ground. Something like smart street lighting is a great test case because you can see a real impact on city services and it gives you a good metric on the overall rate of progress.

More generally, smart cities are also just one aspect of the development of IoT technologies being deployed across many industries to reduce costs and improve services and capabilities. This will help improve the reliability of the underlying smart technologies and to lower costs, and this in turn will further ramp up the smart city market over the next few years.

Within the energy sector specifically, we can also see a clear evolution in terms of the impact of smart cities. In many of the early smart city/smart grid projects cities were essentially used by utilities as the perfect location for smart grid demonstration projects because all the pieces were there: you could look at the connection between electric vehicles, smart meters, distributed energy, demand response, and so on. The focus was on the interplay of these technologies, with cities being little more than a passive partner – albeit one which was glad of the recognition that came with being host to such projects. But in most cases the cities themselves weren’t really directing the underlying energy policy related to these developments.

What we’re seeing now is cities being much proactive on their energy strategy: setting targets for renewable energy and pushing forward things like district heating or vehicle electrification. Many UK cities, for example, are even looking at setting up their own energy companies as part of a broader energy and sustainability strategy. In general, cities are taking a much more active approach to energy policy, and this is going to be a very interesting element of smart cities over the next few years.

Eric Woods

Research Director

Navigant Research

This article first appeared in issue 13 of Horizon 2020 Projects: Portal, which is now available here.