What makes a smart city "smart"? It's a question that many entrepreneurs, enterprise executives and civic leaders are asking themselves today, but the answer can take many forms.
As an entrepreneur, I often think about "smart cities" in the context of disruption by entrepreneurs re-shaping the way cities function. With grassroots IoT incubators popping up here in the U.S. to first generation smart hubs like Singapore across the globe, smart cities offer entrepreneurs opportunities to meet needs that didn't exist pre-2014.
How are entrepreneurs actually fueling the creation of smart cities today? Let's take a look at three important components of smart cities and the people powering them.
Building an infrastructure that uniquely fits the environment
No two cities are the same. Every city worldwide experiences challenges unique to the population, climate, traffic patterns and more. Thus, when it comes to supporting basic infrastructure for a smart city, the devil is in the details. For example, Boston may evaluate how winter conditions and snow accumulation affect traffic December through March and prioritize heated, smart roads that de-ice themselves. Los Angeles, on the other hand, may focus its efforts on how solar or ocean wave energy could power the city.
Barcelona, a stellar example of a European smart hub, is utilizing a mix of high and low technology to benefit its own city-dwellers. According to IoT World Today, the city monitors air pollution by using a system dubbed XVPCA. This system deploys air quality sensors through the city that allows civic leaders to benchmark progress around regulation and air quality initiatives.
The list of what city leaders value, and how they differ from city to city, is likely endless. The challenges are often so unique that solutions to address them don't exist -- and requires someone who knows the city intimately to build it. But, this means that entrepreneurs worldwide who are invested in and proud of their home cities, have an advantage over "non-locals."
A city looking to achieve "smart" status should seek out its local tech and entrepreneurship community (most cities have at least one) first, before pouring hours into researching tech that only checks a handful of boxes. Entrepreneurs should make themselves available to city leaders to engage in discussions about city needs. In the new era of smart tech on a city scale, cities need entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs need cities. Unique cities require a unique solution.
Managing the onslaught of IoT data
The Dallas Innovation Alliance is one of many groups fostering innovation specifically for smart cities. Current projects include smart lighting, waste management, digital citizen-centric kiosks, smart irrigation, smart parking and city-wide access to public Wi-Fi. Each one of these components could be transformative to a city in the short term. But, with smart cities, a long-term perspective is essential, especially when it comes to data.
Data is foundational to the smart city model, and the ability to collect and report on trends is vital to a smart city's ongoing success. Thus, data analysis is just as important as the tech collecting it. Yet, the amount of data facing cities is intimidating.
In fact, IDC predicts that the amount of data could reach 163 zettabytes by 2025. To put this number in perspective, one zettabyte is the equivalent of about 930 billion gigabytes. The human mind, or even a team, can't possibly sift through the amount of data a smart city generates. To manage this onslaught of data, artificial intelligence and machine learning will become the new normal.
I was recently introduced to Moogsoft, a company in the AIOps industry, and was able to discuss smart city initiatives involving AI and IoT.
"The amount of data that will be generated when applying IoT technology to use cases like real-time city management will be massive," Phil Tee, CEO of Moogsoft, wrote in a blog post. "If the performance of these devices is not managed correctly through the smart application of AI and ML, the amount of incoming data will overwhelm human operators and will ultimately pose a barrier to leading cities toward a smarter tomorrow."
Tee's vision of an IT-powered smart city is an approach that combines both machine and manpower, tied together by the IoT devices driving smart efforts.
Humans and machines working together
Have you ever fought with a customer service bot on the phone? Many have experienced the frustration of needing to speak to a real human being about an issue too complex for the bot to understand. In the same way, as artificial intelligence technology takes leaps forward, there will always be a need for the human touch. This provides an additional opportunity for entrepreneurs to not only build smart city tech, but service it, too.
Tee has a similar sentiment on this topic and shared how man and machine can work together in a scenario around urban energy projects.
"As our energy creation becomes more decentralized, sensors that monitor changes in factors like current, voltage and temperature will help us manage our power grids," Tee wrote. "From there, AI will be able to adjust and optimize the energy resources accordingly. The ability for IT teams to observe performance 'at the edge' -- where a specific panel is deployed, for instance -- will be necessary to detect anomalies and restore services when localized outages occur."
This scenario also illustrates how emergent technology doesn't need to eliminate jobs, but can improve services that truly matter.
Practical steps to a better tomorrow
The technology industry is one that must ask itself, "Is what I'm building going to benefit society?" No one wants AI or IoT to complicate things. We're looking for solutions that improve life for us all. Purpose-driven innovation at the city level is a good start.
While we still have the freedom to creatively dream about what is possible in 20 or 30 years, through the lens of IoT, AI and ML, we can see tangible ways to improve each day.