New technology such as low-cost video motion sensors and low-power, wide-area wireless networks are now driving smart-city pilot projects to reduce energy used by buildings and to cut traffic delays.
While the promise of these innovations is great, that doesn't make it any easier to get city bureaucracies, local businesses and citizens on board to adopt the tech.
"There are a lot of pain points in cities with traffic congestion and housing needs and also a lot of technology delivering results. The challenge is working with organizations and changing mindsets and building up awareness of what's possible with internet of things technology and low-power, wide-area networks," said Jamie Cudden, smart city program manager with the city of Dublin, Ireland, in an interview.
"We're on the verge of seeing smart city tech grow exponentially," he added, speaking during a visit last week to the Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator, sponsored by Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Cudden joined about 50 CIOs and CTOs from other cities, mostly from the U.S., to share ideas on taking advantage of the latest smart city technology.
"One thing I learned from the U.S. cities is to take an entrepreneurial mindset and to use startups to address problems in cities, with something like an entrepreneurship-in-residence program," Cudden said. "A lot of cities are dealing with the same problems and one takeaway is there's very little difference in the challenges in European cities or U.S. cities."
Computerworld last May visited the island nation-city of Singapore, where the government has set up a large incubator called Bash (Building Amazing Startups Here) University. It regularly has more than 200 startup professionals from 50 countries working in the same space on multiple startup projects.
Dublin launched a smart city advisory network last year and has been working with various startups, including some devoted to expanding the impact of smart bicycle technology, which is "growing massively with a lot of cities pushing cycling," he said.
IBM in Dublin is also using Watson machine learning technology to reduce energy used in downtown buildings. The city is working with private developers to pilot IBM's technology in two new buildings, using multiple sensors to measure the microclimate around a building combined with weather predictions to "hedge energy bills," he said.
New York's LinkNYC hits 1 million subscribers
Also at the accelerator conference, New York City's recently installed Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamino said the benefit of sharing with technologists from other cities was "coming up with ways to navigate city challenges. It's not just looking at a bunch of products and that widget that will work for New York or this city or that."
Part of Gamino's job description is to increase availability and use of broadband in all five boroughs. "Broadband is huge and is the foundation upon all of these smart city ideas, whether it is IoT or apps or whatever," he said. "They all depend on a robust, connected community and broadband is critically important to that. The ultimate goal for smart cities is to have a positive impact on the citizen experience, the public experience. That public experience is how they interact with government."
New York last week celebrated reaching 1 million subscribers to its LinkNYC free Wi-Fi hotspot network that will eventually be installed in 7,500 locations. In less than a year, users have downloaded more than 550 Tbytes over the network.
"I only started working in New York a couple of months ago, but things like LinkNYC with 1 million subscribers represent really good progress," Gamino said. "I don't take any credit for that, but applaud it. My objective is to scale it, and not just with LinkNYC, but to grow equitable access to broadband whether on Wi-Fi or other modes."
New York learned it needed to eliminate the browsers on the touchscreen tablets embedded in LinkNYC kiosks because some users were lingering too long, sometimes surfing for porn or playing loud music -- just one example of the challenges with new smart city technology.
Gamino and Cudden both said they can't easily foresee smart city tech that's coming several years from now, partly because technology is evolving so quickly.
"I can't say we'll have flying cars in Manhattan, but what I can say is to stay tuned," Gamino said. "One prototype for a flying car costs $14 million, so flying cars won't be held back by city bureaucracy, but by the economics. But to use that flying car metaphor seriously, I'd say to stay tuned to our approach. We'll be working with these really disruptive technologies."
Smartphone chip designer ARM Holdings recently developed cloud-based software to more easily make security updates and changes to various microcontrollers that are often connected to sensors.
"This service will take away some of the challenges of diverse sets of hardware used in cities or in the cloud," said Ian Ferguson, vice president of marketing and strategic alliances, in a recent interview. "Just because something is connected doesn't make it smart. It's still really pretty complicated to connect up these systems and there's lots of software associated with connectivity."
Many cities, including Chicago, are investing in massive upgrades to their street lighting systems, connecting them into networks to, for example, dim the lights on bright, moonlit nights to save energy.
"Many people are investing in city lighting systems, but really for a smart city benefit, you want a lighting system that understands where the traffic is, so you want vision systems and have to get to world where these systems are connected up," Ferguson said.
ARM recently released a white paper that envisions office buildings and schools equipped with indoor environmental quality sensors that can measure and be used to regulate lighting levels, CO2, temperature, and water leaks. Sensors can even provide advance warnings of earthquakes and pollution.
ARM warned in the white paper that "it is not going to be easy" to provide such capabilities, but described a number of standards and embedded software that will help.
IBM also described smart building initiatives in a blog posted last year, listing partners such as Siemens.
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