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Smart cities must do more to deliver value for citizens

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ jamesteohart)

Surveying the current IoT landscape, it might be hard to believe that the technology has been around for 30 years. While smart city projects have been early adopters of IoT, for the population of these cities, the impact of implementing connected devices can often be considered one-dimensional at best.   

That’s not to say there aren’t a great many examples of cities implementing IoT projects and achieving exciting results. The issue is that most of these projects are currently standalone initiatives. They are unable to interconnect or work alongside one another and, therefore, are unable to deliver wider-reaching benefits for cities and their citizens. The reason behind this can be traced back to the lack of interoperability between IoT communication protocols. Without the ability to have unlike protocols interacting and communicating with one another (for example, enabling protocols such as  LoRa and a Zigbee to seamlessly inter-connect), smart cities will hit a ceiling – and sooner than you might realise.   

It is this absence of interoperability that is the biggest barrier to entry for smaller organisations taking advantage of IoT infrastructure and delivering value for citizens. The deployment of IoT initiatives has continued to sit firmly in the domain of large organisations – whether they be publicly or privately funded – with SMEs unable to justify the investment that would see them gain a foothold in the smart city landscape.   

So, where can leaders in IoT draw inspiration from when it comes to progressive smart city initiatives? Further to this, how can they begin to tackle the challenge of interoperability to ensure companies both big and small can build meaningful IoT projects that deliver long-lasting value?   

A plethora of projects 

First, we need to acknowledge that all cities face their own unique issues and, as such, have different priorities and reasons for implementing IoT; comparing current projects that are being carried out across the world is like comparing apples and oranges. What we can agree on is that IoT applications in cities like New York, Turin, and Barcelona all have one factor in common; each is working to solve a singular challenge. So, it makes sense that we continue to see certain stand-out smart city schemes credited in news headlines, as examples of the incremental impact the technology can have on city-wide processes.    

For example, Italy’s city of Turin is using wireless IoT networks called Long Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) and Narrowband for IoT (NB-IoT) - which are currently deployed across another 21 countries to date - to connect low power devices. This has allowed the city’s government to place sensors on bins, in an attempt to track citizens’ litter habits (opens in new tab) and subsequently provide tax discounts for those who recycle.  

Today, Barcelona is using IoT to make its public services more efficient and sustainable (opens in new tab). For example, sensors used in city parks have helped gardeners to use less water, which is both more environmentally friendly and economical. Citizens have also benefited from improved services on public transport (opens in new tab), through initiatives such as electronic ticketing and regularly updated route information. Using IoT in the city has not only improved life for citizens, but has served to inform government and council decisions.    

In contrast to these smaller-scale initiatives, Sidewalk Labs – Alphabet Inc.'s urban innovation organisation - has undertaken a bigger budget, but more general IoT project offering free gigabit Wi-Fi across New York City (opens in new tab). Once people connect, behavioural data is collected to inform future developments based on the statistics about city dwellers. This type of data collection can go far when it comes to informing strategies to solve typical city challenges, such as congestion problems or subway overcrowding. However, it will take the application of this data to prove the usefulness of the project; how will IoT infrastructure use the data, and enable automation as a solution to the problems at hand? 

While the two European IoT projects illustrate the potential of the technology to improve public services, they pale in comparison to the city-wide WiFi initiative being carried out in New York City. This deployment of IoT in America’s most densely populated metropolitan area demonstrates the extent to which a sizeable investment from a large organisation can significantly alter the reach and potential impact of a project.   

Ultimately, the integration of IoT initiatives into any city is about building automation to address citizens’ needs and future-proof infrastructure for population growth. India (opens in new tab) is one country that has recognised the importance of ensuring that cities are built to be smart, which is why the Indian government announced one of the biggest global IoT efforts to date. The strategy will see 92 cities developed from scratch, with IoT as a foundational element of the city infrastructure in an attempt to stay ahead of future needs.   

Placing pressure on priorities  

Clearly, IoT has a role to play in improving a range of everyday realities that come with city life. Thanks to this, decision-makers have been given the tough job of choosing which smart city project will be given the green light first. Up until now, the process of determining priorities has been made that much harder thanks to the lack of interoperability between IoT protocols. People must either make an educated guess about which protocol will be more beneficial for future deployments as well as current ones, or resign themselves to implementing multiple protocols and dealing with the headaches that come with aggregating and analysing data. Unfortunately, with projects already underway the world over, it’s far too late in the day to look to the development of a ‘universal’ IoT language to solve the pain of how to draw larger value from smart city initiatives.    

By starting implementations of a small scale, it can be harder to evaluate the true impact of IoT on a city’s landscape, as any outcomes are likely to be short-sighted. However, smart city projects are poised to benefit from new technology that enables interoperability. This will future-proof standalone initiatives, as they will be equipped to connect with new initiatives that are deployed using different communication protocols. This interoperability will also mean that SME organisations can tap into existing smart infrastructure and build additional solutions to expand IoT’s role in the connected city.    

Without interoperability, it’s a lose-lose situation for SMEs and big organisations alike. Therefore, decision-makers must be asking themselves a key question: can their city afford to not deploy technology that will make IoT infrastructure more accessible and usable by all?   

Moving forward with a full map of IoT 

A report from McKinsey Global Institute (opens in new tab) about the viability of IoT shows the extent to which interoperability plays a significant role in driving the end-value of IoT implementation. They predict that 40 per cent of the total value comes from having systems and devices that can communicate with each other. Without this, the research organisation estimates companies will miss out on a potential $40 trillion each year globally. A lack of interoperability would also see the divide grow even larger between those companies that can and those that can’t invest heavily in standalone IoT initiatives.   

To deliver tangible benefits not only for smart cities, but also a range of industries from manufacturing to retail, organisations must adopt new IoT solutions that can equip disparate communications protocols and devices to work together. Only then we will be able to develop more equitable, accessible IoT infrastructure and build the city of the future.    

Damien D’Souza, Commercial Director at xelba (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

Damien D’Souza, commercial director at IoT company xelba has over 35 years’ experience leading blue chip companies (IBM, Ericsson Hutchison, Nokia, AEVI), working in telecom, payments, digital media, technology and business services.