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A Tale Of Two [smart] Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… 

Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

Today, many equipment, software and smart services players are embracing the concept of “Smart City” more as a marketing tool to generate momentum for new technology adoption more than anything else.  But, in reality, for cities to become truly ‘smart’, new relationships and interactions will need to be enabled for citizens, users, stakeholders and the many traditional equipment players (e.g. utilities, transportation, buildings, parking facilities, etc.) to ensure we don’t create anything more than a huge collection of disparate systems, devices and information-islands.

So which smart city “tale” should we believe?  The technology “optimist” view coming from large multi-national equipment manufacturers, telco’s and a long list of software and IT vendors or, the “pragmatist” view (and by pragmatist we mean just about anyone living in a large city today observing the complexity and rapidly changing dynamics which pervade any urban center)?

New smart city technologies are showing promise in their ability to alleviate citizen and agency stakeholder pain-points, but the diversity of technologies and the number of applications and integration dimensions create numerous hurdles to adoption. While many cities are beginning to modernize aging infrastructure, embracing technologies to improve their essential urban systems and enable more effective resource utilization are, at the very least, a very complex challenge.

Bold marketing pronouncements of smarter urban environments often highlight benefits such as increased efficiency, predictability, and security; we hear about transportation infrastructure that will enable us to get to work on time, or interactive enablement to improve our shopping experience, or new systems that will protect us from the dangers of urban crime.  Technocratic stability, modernity and progress are all messages streaming at us from new smart city marketing campaigns.

Cities Are Impacted By Traditional Markets Converging

 

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All of these smart city marketing campaigns tend to assume that whatever the scale of the city, they all share similar characteristics, organizing principles, structures, protocols and practices and, if we can just measure the right sensor parameters, we can control anything.  Even an entire city.  Even more misleading is the assumption that as long as we upgrade the physical infrastructure of cities, citizens will all go about their business mindlessly happy and satisfied. Such assumptions leave little room for rapidly changing urban dynamics, technical issues or discontinuities or, citizen engagement and involvement. Smartness arises in expanded human interactions and creativity, not in physical infrastructures.

If You Build It (Right), They Will Come 

To be a truly smart city, data must be able to travel freely across systems, allowing information from disparate city operations to feed one another, increasing their overall value to citizens. Open urban architectures are like bridges built at private expense for public benefit. Everybody wants to collect the tolls, but few are prepared for the major challenges they will face to build and maintain the bridge. The size and scale of the undertaking would seem to favor larger companies, but more often it is the smaller, nimbler innovators that drive real applied value.

Although we face many adoption challenges, we see a growing recognition of the need for a new generation of open platforms that can unify a city’s physical infrastructure, device data, and citizen interactions into a seamless set of smart services.  However, understanding the requirements for such platforms and their adoption is lagging, but the opportunity is substantial.

Harbor predicts the market for smart systems and services within cities could be as large as $129 billion by 2022, and the scale of data integration, management and analytics could reach $38 billion.

The Age of Information Siloes Must End

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How will we get there? Does anyone know how this is all supposed to work?  Are there any “visions” of how this can come to pass? 

Today’s platforms for Smart Systems and the IoT should be taking on the toughest challenges of interoperability, information architecture and user complexity. But they’re not. We need to creatively evolve to an entirely new approach that avoids the confinements and limitations of today’s differing platforms. We need to quickly move to a “post platform” world where there is a truly open data and information architecture that can easily integrate diverse machines, data, information systems and people – a world where smarter systems will smoothly interact to create systemic intelligence – a world where there are no artificial barriers between different types of information.

This future smart city “in the best of times” is contingent on open data and improved data partnerships between technology vendors, OEMs, software innovators and governments, freeing information from assets and systems for the user’s benefit, allowing stakeholders coming from various contexts to utilize the data they need to improve decision making.

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