Q&A: The future of smart cities

We spoke to Don Reeves, Chief Technology Officer, at Silver Spring Networks, to find out his thoughts on the future of smart cities.

1. When people hear the phrase Internet of Things, they tend to think of Apple Watches and smart fridges. What’s Silver Spring’s vision for the IoT?

The Internet of Things is more than just consumer wearables - it goes beyond fashion and home technology to the cities we work, live and play in.

Imagine living in a city where you and your surroundings are completely interactive and optimised with little or no cost - visualise walking down a path where the street lights adaptively brighten your way as you walk beneath them, or where your car journey home is quicker because the traffic patterns are refined in real-time according to congestion.

In a smart city, physical devices are ‘smart’ to their surroundings and their existence. The benefits could be felt by the whole of the community – what if a council could find out when a bridge or road was on the verge of collapse, and proactively focus on preventative maintenance, not damage control after the fact? Our vision is to make this a reality in communities and cities around the world.

Connectivity is the defining characteristic of the Internet of Things, and therefore choosing the right network for these things is a foundational decision. The right network can enable commercial enterprises, cities, utilities and developers to access a reliable, secure, ubiquitous and scalable platform to apply IoT as the norm, and not the exception, in their industries.

2. Can you talk about the importance of Open Standards in driving adoption of the IoT?

By 2020, over 50 billion things are predicted to be connected. For consumer products, making the connection between these disposable devices is relatively straight-forward. However, for those ‘things’ that are critical infrastructure, such as civic transport services or solar inverters, the goal of broad, reliable connectivity becomes more challenging.

These devices are mission critical and there is no room for any interruption, which might affect efficiency or even health and safety. This is why open standards are so important - can you think of a major technological disruption in recent years that has relied on proprietary technology from a single vendor? 

To achieve a framework that is industrial-strength and highly reliable, open standards are essential. By partnering with the Wi-SUN Alliance, we are supporting an independent certification body to ensure that the promise of open standards is realised through industry coordination and interoperability testing.

Additionally, as IoT evolves across new industries, there is an unprecedented demand for developers and makers to design and develop connected systems and devices. Gartner estimates that by 2017, 50 per cent of IoT solutions will be developed by start-ups. In order to ensure that we are the beneficiaries of that innovation, a standard-based IoT network can most easily enable developers to bring new applications to market.

3. What types of devices are you seeing users wanting to connect?

Although we can’t predict every new device that will come to market, we see some of the largest opportunities in the smart city space. Today more than one-half of the world’s population lives in cities. This figure will soar to 66 per cent by 2050.

The economic, environmental, and energy challenges that come with this scale of global urbanisation are staggering. Yet, the possibilities are enormous: the Internet of Things has a potential economic impact of up to $11.1 trillion per year by 2025, with as much as $1.7 trillion in cities alone, according to McKinsey Research.

We expect that over the coming decade, we’ll see an extraordinary range of new devices connected to create smart cities. At the moment we’re seeing demand for smart streetlights, traffic lights, environmental and pollution sensors and EV chargers, but we anticipate these demands to expand in due course.

4. There’s lots of buzz in the industry right now with LPWA providers claiming to connect IoT devices. How does Silver Spring compare?

It’s true that there has been a lot of noise lately around LPWA solutions but we believe that that is all it is - noise. Proprietary technologies that are being used by these vendors are really re-worked versions of semi-extinct technologies. By virtue of being low bandwidth connectivity solutions, they are restrictive – a valuable, useful network will have the capacity to grow, increase users, and as such, will have a high bandwidth. It’s why our newest platform support up to 2.4 Mbps, compared to the maximum of kbps which most LPWA solutions offer.

In addition, LPWA providers do not offer full security protection, whereas we offer banking-level security for every layer of the platform and to every device. We believe that users who truly want to connect IoT devices should not settle for connectivity that will limit their scalability, reliability and longevity of their programs.

5. Where is Silver Spring currently deploying its IoT networks?

We have nearly 25 million devices connected around the world on five continents. In the UK and Ireland specifically we’re working with the cities of Bristol, Glasgow, Crossmolina in Ireland, and Westminster, London. We also have mature deployments ongoing in the rest of Europe, North and South America, Asia and in Australia and New Zealand.

6. What are the major benefits that users in these areas can expect?

We’ve seen customers achieve benefits from reliability to sustainability and energy efficiency to public health and safety to boosting economic viability. Our network’s intelligence allows devices to talk, analyse and react accordingly, and as these devices are always learning from other devices and the environment around them, we’re always seeing fresh use cases develop.

For instance, Copenhagen, aiming to be the world’s first carbon neutral city, is using our network to connect street lights to improve bicycle safety and reduce congestion. In Glasgow, we’re streaming data from noise, light, traffic and air quality sensors into a database to build new solutions to address efficiency and public safety in the area. Meanwhile, in Crossmolina, County Mayo, Ireland, we’re not only helping introduce smart street lighting to reduce its energy budget, but also a residential energy efficiency project to help engage energy consumers on their own energy use. In Paris, we are connecting all street lights and traffic controls across the city to reduce its public energy consumption over the next decade and help streamline traffic congestion.

We’ve found that our IoT platform not only helps customers meet their goals but once achieved, they want to leverage it for other applications. This is why we believe that there should be no architectural compromises or limitations in the underlying platform, as that could limit adoption.

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

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Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.