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Smart City Expo 2016 recap: Pent-up innovation

Attending this year’s Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, I was amazed by the software and sensor technology on display and by the passionate vision many city leaders must make their cities better places to live, work and play using technology.

Just as noteworthy was the palpable sense of pent-up innovation. It struck me—all that’s missing now are the large-scale implementations, built atop extensible, interoperable systems, that can leverage existing physical infrastructure to generate the ubiquitous, real-time data needed for vast use cases. (Insights come from information density—just ask Google).

Though cities are still piloting and testing various smart city technologies, no city, yet, has led the first city wide deployment to generate this ubiquitous real-time data so outcome-based applications can start benefiting their citizens.

Certainly, all the pieces are falling into place. Consider some of the things you missed at the Expo if you couldn’t attend:

●    2016 had 576 exhibitors, an increase of nearly 30 percent from 2015.

●    This year’s motto was “Cities for Citizens,” so many of the talks focused on civic engagement and sustainable development.

●    Attending companies included my organization (Current, powered by GE) as well as Microsoft, Cisco, MasterCard, Philips, Huawei and ZTE to name a few

●    Berlin, Dubai, New York and Seoul were among the cities represented by delegates.

●    600 cities and 412 speakers participated in the Expo.

●    Huawei showed off its straight-out-of-Hollywood, real-time city dashboards.

●    Bosch displayed an intricate model of how smart cities will work.

●    Current, powered by GE, showcased its, IoT platform for cities, which includes an edge device, called CityIQ, and OPEN real-time data APIs that allow the city and their partners to easily access and build applications.

Despite the many amazing things on display and the obvious hunger for breakthroughs, it was very clear that hurdles stand in the way of greater industry adoption. For instance:

●    Cities’ resources are limited, and the number of single-use sensors out there requiring city staff to research, fund, procure and manage them (e.g., in parking or environmental applications) is limiting the ROI and size of smart city projects today.

●    Cities have some data but not at the scale they need. Worse yet, some are still using analog means of data collection, hiring expensive consultants, or deploying less-effective battery-powered devices that end up damaged or obsolete.

●    Aesthetics can be an issue. With the easy access to power and the height advantage of utility poles and street lighting, everyone is clamoring for sensor placement there. If cities grant that access, these poles can become an ugly mess of sensors and exposed wires, hurting city efforts to beautify landscapes.

●    Many of the sensors in the market are just collecting data for single-use cases. They can’t be upgraded with new analytics over the air, and they aren’t able to communicate with neighboring nodes or perform multi-sensor fusion. Municipalities should look for solutions that solve these issues, so they have future-proofed smart cities.

The challenges are large, but at the same time the opportunity cost is enormous. These new technologies, when executed well, offer benefits that are unprecedented in the history of the city, and these hurdles are preventing cities from collecting those benefits. What this means is that there’s a clear need for cities to efficiently build their digital infrastructure to capture the ubiquitous real-time data to enable this transformation. Consequently, these systems need to be:

●    Multi-sensor, end-to-end systems that serve more than limited single needs and can tap into multiple budgeting streams. This also creates upgradeable solutions.

●    Open data platforms that can be built on or “extended.” Developers using such systems can easily create applications that span siloed city departments, for instance. We’ve seen amazing new applications for smart cities already. Developers respond in creative droves when the tools are provided for them to do so.

●    Capable of delivering powerful edge analytics

●    Be extensible through over the air upgrades of analytics, connection to new neighboring sensors and in its ability to do multi-sensor fusion

●    Aimed at ROI and outcomes. Systems designed in this way can move out of the realm of transparency initiatives and into the arena of economic functions.

●    Aesthetically pleasing since ugly appendages won’t pass muster with citizens, city councils and historical societies.

If You Build Digital Roads, Data Will Come

Putting all of this together, of course, can seem complicated. But, if we work together, we can take a step-by-step approach to educate, to finance and to deploy this digital infrastructure. (Check out our webinar “It Takes a Village to Raise a Smart City” and white paper “11 Strategic Considerations for City Leaders to Achieve a Smart City + 47 Tactics to Support Deployment” for more detail.)

Cities, certainly the ones that attended the Expo, are clearly motivated and aware of the need to be transparent and start capturing the critical data needed for real outcomes. But they probably need help to figure out where to start.

Many excellent exhibitors at the Expo and the talented experts they employ can help municipalities start now to build the digital infrastructure to make their city smart. From concept to community engagement to deployment to outcome generation, cities should understand that guidance is available. They just must ask for help.

Once cities start deploying solutions on a larger scale, the data will be able to revolutionize how people engage with each other within the context of their towns, communities, neighborhoods and blocks.

If there was one takeaway for me from Barcelona, it was this: It’s time. It’s time we move technology from the exposition floor to the city streets.

About the Author

Jim Benson, GM Global Marketing, Intelligent Cities

Jim leads a comprehensive global strategy for Current's intelligent cities solution which focuses on helping cities build the digital infrastructure they need to build the intelligent city of the future.