How the UK can lead the world at smart cities

In recent years, the global focus on smart cities and IoT has increased exponentially, with businesses and governments everywhere looking at how they can incorporate the benefits and get the best results for their citizens.

While we are now seeing these initiatives begin to take root in the UK, with a £140 million investment to develop IoT applications and smart cities announced in the latest budget, it seems we are still a couple of steps behind some of our global counterparts.

So how do we turn this gap to our advantage? What lessons can we learn to ensure our own IoT projects are best positioned for success?

From greenfield to brownfield

Most smart city projects generally fall into one of two categories: ‘greenfield’ cities that are built ‘smart’ from the start in order to attract businesses and residents, and ‘brownfield’ sites that involve implementing upgrades and retrofitting the existing infrastructure to become smarter.

Examples of greenfield smart cities are few and far between, but two of note are Songdo in South Korea and Paredes in Portugal.

>See also: The realities of unlocking smart cities

The 1,500-acre International Business District in Songdo is a $35 billion project that has been touted as a model future city by developers and technology suppliers. The city is home to futuristic technologies that promote sustainability, such as water recycling systems and pneumatic waste disposal systems that eliminate the need for garbage trucks. The city is also filled with sensors that can monitor temperature, energy use and traffic flow, as well as charging stations for electric cars.

While this all sounds amazing, it seems a number of Songdo’s residents are yet to be convinced. Of the 82,000 people that live in Songdo, only around 35,000 people so far call the smart district home and the BBC described Songdo’s cafes, streets and shopping areas as “largely empty” when reporters visited in 2013. It may be a smart, efficient ‘model city’, but those who have visited claim that it lacks the diversity and vitality that only organic development can provide.

Looking at our second example, construction began on Paredes, located slightly closer to home in Northern Portugal, in 2010 and should be completed in 2015 at an estimated cost of $10 billion. Cisco, IBM and Hitachi are some of the tech companies partnering with the government of Portugal and Living PlanIT (a Portuguese middleware company) to build a state-of-the-art smart city.  

As with Songdo, the plan is to add sensors to virtually everything – from refrigerators to rubbish bins to traffic lights – all of which will be connected to Living PlanIT’s middleware platform.

Paredes is expected to eventually house about 225,000 people, many of whom will work for Living PlanIT’s technology partners. Building employment opportunities such as this into the city may be a smarter approach, guaranteeing immediate residents rather than expecting that they will want to move in once the city is built and risking a lack of uptake, which seems to have been the case in Songdo.

Despite both of these projects involving huge budgets and massive infrastructure, their success is still largely unproven. Though useful experiments to learn from, they do not necessarily provide workable solutions that can be applied elsewhere due to the extremes of cost and scale involved.

Apart from these rare examples of larger scale ‘smart from the start’ city projects, the vast majority of the global market is composed of existing cities adopting a more realistic, step-by-step brownfield approach.

Smarter by degrees

A McKinsey review of 50 smart city projects in Europe revealed that nearly all were launched as publicly-funded pilots with tailor-made solutions, rather than as scalable initiatives.

“For the most part,” the report found, “neither city officials nor technology vendors have been willing (or able) to risk investing in large-scale demonstrations.’”

One example of a brownfield project that has seen success (at a far lower cost than its greenfield cousins) is Santander in Spain. In 2010, the European Union selected Santander to test the latest in smart city technology and allocated an $11 million grant to the project.

Dubbed Smart Santander, the city is widely cited as an example of one of the first truly smart cities. The project has created one of the largest smart urban infrastructures in the world, with over 20,000 devices deployed both at static locations around the city, including streetlights, facades and bus stops, as well as on board mobile vehicles including buses and taxis.

Testing these connected devices has revealed several use cases, such as environmental monitoring, parking, traffic monitoring and park irrigation. At the same time, the city is opening up its data so that programmers can create apps that help citizens.

The initiative is already providing a wide range of benefits to its citizens by making the best use of the information provided by its many sensors – even despite the challenges of ‘retrofitting’ this smart technology into existing infrastructure.

Bringing the smart city home

In the UK, the concept of the smart city is beginning to come to the fore in a number of cities, with IoT networks that have the ability to connect millions of ‘things’ being the key enablers for this.

A number of ‘IoT clusters’ are springing up, driven by initiatives to help and advise local businesses and government on how to make use of open data, connectivity and the IoT. These include Digital Greenwich, Bristol is Open, the Innovate UK-backed HyperCatCity initiative, the Cognicity project at Canary Wharf, Future City Glasgow, and the Birmingham Urban demonstrator project.

>See also: Smart cities: how do we get there?

It’s an exciting time, but if smart cities are to truly work in the UK, stakeholders need to learn from the successes and mistakes of those cities where the concept of getting ‘smarter’ is more mature.

The larger scale greenfield projects discussed here are great test beds, demonstrating the future potential of the smart city, but realistically the UK needs solutions that can bring more immediate benefits to existing residents in our current cities. Critical to the success of smart cities is the need to make sure that the benefits are explained clearly and early on.

Part of this education piece stems from cities needing to work together more – strengthening their voice. It is encouraging to see initiatives such as the government-backed Technology Strategy Board’s Digital Catapult scheme, but we need many more of these to break cities out of their current siloed developments.

For the UK to get truly smarter, it will need a joined-up approach supported by solid connectivity infrastructure that enables ubiquitous access to the data needed to make smart changes in cities.


Sourced from Sean Weir, Arqiva

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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