Putting smart city ideas into action: How new technologies can revolutionize metropolitan life

One of the biggest buzzwords of 2017 was undoubtedly “smart city.” The year was filled with smart city announcements around the world – including news of major investments being made to make Toronto a “future city,” and even a focus on smaller communities like Belmont, Arizona.   

Why have these smart initiatives become so popular? Cities are facing some common challenges: urban density is on the rise, the population is ageing, energy demands are going through the roof, and mobility is becoming more challenging with increasing congestion. Urban planners and government leaders are starting to understand that innovative technologies like the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) can solve these challenges in a “smart” way, and more importantly that these technologies are becoming more accessible and affordable every day. 

The Value of Smart Cities: Taking a Page from Singapore 

Smart city initiatives can improve quality of life in a variety of ways – from enabling the efficient consumption of power and water to improving transport and mobility. One of the biggest benefits of smart initiatives is that these technologies enable the real-time collection of all kinds of interesting data and analytics. This allows governments to aggregate individual data points and citizen reports, and factor them into their understanding of everything that’s going on in their city, on the roads, in the pipes and wires as well as underground. This is extremely important from a maintenance perspective, as it enables faster detection of issues and lets local leaders be proactive about potential threats. 

For governments looking to get started on their own smart city journeys, mobility and transport are often the first areas to tackle. Cities’ workforces spend hours commuting, which wastes time and energy and contributes to their carbon footprint. Optimizing transport with intelligent systems – including connected traffic lights, congestion based tolls, and efficient public transit systems – provides huge benefits. One region that’s gotten a head start on such improvements is Singapore, which was the first city in the world to implement an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system as a way to keep traffic flowing.  Additionally, all buses in Singapore are fitted with GPS devices that publish their location, loading information, door open and close events and other data points in real-time. This insight helps alleviate problems like bus bunching, and helps with long term route and bus lane planning. 

Singapore also recently launched a parking app called Parking.sg which enables drivers to find places to park, and pay for the space. While this makes parking much easier for citizens, it also gives the government useful analytics about where vehicles are, how long they’re parking for and other patterns – all of which can be mined analytics tools. 

The Technologies and Principles Needed for Success: IoT and Efficient Data Flow 

There is a lot of innovation happening in the so called “last mile” of connectivity, so smart city planners need to expect and embrace variety at the edge. As we move closer to the core systems, it’s important to funnel this variety into some standard protocols so connectivity does not become entangled. The easiest way to ensure every system is seamlessly connected is to do so with a single messaging fabric based on open data standards. Ultimately, this means linking systems across cloud and on-premises environments using a variety of message exchange patterns, and supporting the diverse APIs and protocols that are best suited for different data movement scenarios. I like to refer to the result of such a system as a “data river” – massive amounts of events and information flowing to a central repository for archival while being accessible to systems that need it in real-time. 

Another complex problem facing smart city planners, is architecting for IoT at scale. These issues are not just technical but human, and planners need to create a strategic vision, and then build projects iteratively. It’s like building roads for a planned city – first you must have a map, and then build out blocks with the right mix of offices, residences, hospitals, schools, parks, etc. But for smart cities, think of the blocks as applications, surface streets as tributaries to a data river, and expressways as the data river itself. There are a few architectural principals smart city planners and government bodies involved will need to adhere to: 

  1. Think event-driven. Everything is an event, from a location update to a health sensor reading, to a smart meter tick to a click on an app. 
  2. Deploy a data river, or in other words, an event-streaming message bus to capture and route events. It’s important to queue them up if the downstream systems are down or slow, throttle like a dam, load balance like a delta.   
  3. Have data lakes feed off the data river, some for streaming analytics, others for data at rest analysis. Optimizing algorithms like artificial intelligence and machine learning requires data, which must flow to them from the river. 
  4. Enable command and control at scale. For example, when you detect bus bunching or vehicle congestion, the backend systems might want to send messages to specific vehicles with instructions to slow down, speed up or take an alternative route.   
  5. Deploy messaging buses at the project or department level, similar to tributaries flowing into a central data river for real-time data sharing. 
  6. Build applications that leverage the power of streaming and publish subscribe, rather than traditional request-reply. 
  7. Stress upon governance and security. For example, look to technologies that govern and secure well-defined topic namespaces. 

Given the volume of information that IoT devices generate, it is unnecessary and would be wasteful to send all information everywhere. The key to architecting efficient, high-volume IoT and smart city infrastructure is to establish a data river that captures everything, allows command-and-control, and routes the right data to specific lakes. Diverse systems can tap into the data river as a means of retrieving only the information that’s relevant to them. This allows each system to tap into a completely personalized and valuable feed of the information it needs to perform its function. 

To Smart City Planners: Think like an Entrepreneur 

Building a smart city requires a combination of a few things -- it takes political will, strategic thinking, organizational competence, and the right technologies. For those embarking on their smart city journeys, my biggest piece of advice is to think like an entrepreneur. Identify services that will get you quick, high-visibility wins with your constituents, such as mobile reporting apps and signage that informs them about, for example, congestion on the roads. These small wins will generate enthusiasm, support and a bit of patience as you work to introduce more complex services that tie together stubborn legacy systems.

Sumeet Puri, Vice President of International Systems Engineering at Solace 

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