2020 AND BEYOND: Are we ready for smarter cities?
2020 AND BEYOND: Are we ready for smarter cities?
ISE Magazine January 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 1
By Keith Albertson
The idea of a futuristic city where people and machines interact seamlessly has long been a common theme in science ﬁction and pop culture. It depicts a utopia where devices in homes, transportation and workplaces are guided by sensors and connect-ed by computers, all sharing information to anticipate and adjust for human comfort, efﬁciency and safety.
As we head into the 2020s, such an environment inches closer to reality. But are people fully prepared for smart city automation to move out of laboratories and into the public square? Though various elements of the technology already exist in many areas, the ﬁnal hurdle toward widespread connectivity depends not only on systems engineers working out the ﬁnal bugs but also on society adapting to a new age of “smartness.”
Clearing that last-mile gap was a common theme in discussions at the Smart City Expo Atlanta held Sept. 11-13, 2019. The Atlanta event is the lone U.S. edition of Smart City Expo World Congress, a global conference held annually in Barcelona on smart cities and smart urban solutions.
Amid a display of smart city products and applications, experts at various panels agreed that a coordinated effort is needed from governments, businesses and academia to make such technology available and embraced by the public.
“This is our 21st century public works,” said Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation and technology for Louisville, Kentucky.
Internet of things (IoT) communication already is widely used by industry. Its next generation offers the potential to make everyday devices smart and interactive rather than programmed merely to follow a predictable set of functions.
Connected cities can enhance life in several areas:
Environmental. The use of smart devices in transportation and utilities can reduce carbon emissions while saving money and resources. Many homes and buildings now use IoT technology for security, lighting and temperature adjustment to manage energy use. Incorporating that technology across an urban area is seen as a way to improve convenience, comfort and sustainability.
Such connected buildings and homes “can provide cost savings without impacting comfort and provide solutions easily scaled to multiple sizes of buildings,” said Erika Gupta, technology manager with the Ofﬁce of Energy Efﬁciency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Transportation. Moving people through crowded streets is a challenge everywhere, though sur-veys show about half of all car trips are 3 miles or less. Autonomous vehicles and micromobility conveyances like scooters and bikes can reduce the volume of carbon-spewing vehicles on clogged roadways. Yet that often means creating dedicated lanes and altering trafﬁc laws for such vehicles, an issue many municipalities are facing.
“We need a mode for that last mile to transit systems,” said Brandon Pollak, director for global engagement and strategy for Bird scooters. “Micromobility infrastructure can improve safety with bike lanes (and) get them off the sidewalks.
”One company, Tortoise, is developing scooters that include training wheels and a camera and can be returned to a charging station or base by a remote operator.
Above the road, drones already are being tested for package and food delivery in areas such as college campuses as another way to beat street trafﬁc. And larger air taxis that can carry commuters are on the horizon.
Easing mobility in crowded cities can also impact public safety. For instance, smart trafﬁc lights can be timed to help ﬁrst responders reach the scene of an accident faster.
Convenience. Many city residents now can obtain li-censes and other documents, pay bills and get information either via smartphones or public devices such as kiosks. These enhancements can save time, eliminate long lines, cut labor costs and improve the consumer experience. Future applications may include online voting, though only when security and transparency issues have been addressed.
Though the beneﬁts of smart technology are evident, there still are challenges. Several speakers at the Atlanta expo dis-cussed the remaining steps needed to create interconnected communities. Each relies on cooperation among technology experts, public leaders, businesses and residents.
“I don’t think the private sector can go it alone, nor can the public sector,” Betsy Plattenburg, executive director of the Curiosity Lab smart city test environment, said in an episode of Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast. “And bringing the two entities together with very different interests is a nice way to advance innovation more quickly.”
“It’s not just the pursuit of technology itself but how to harness technology to improve the quality of life,” Debra Lam, managing director of smart cities and inclusive innovation at Georgia Tech, told ISE. “I look at it as a continuous improvement process.
“More collaboration is what’s necessary to move forward. ‘Smart cities’ isn’t always the right term. Sometimes that assumes it’s only a city-led initiative, but it involves a lot more parties.”
Cities seek resources, expertise
The technology required to create a connected community isn’t cheap; smaller cities, in particular, can struggle to ﬁt such costs into their budgets. At the Atlanta expo, leaders from cities of various sizes told of their challenges and successes in adopting such technology.
“As mayor, our goal is to make sure all basic needs are met,” said Frank Brocato, mayor of Hoover, Alabama, a southern suburb of Birmingham with a population of about 85,000. “But smaller cities don’t always have the ability to do this due to limitation of resources.
”Because machines speak to each other at a much greater speed compared to humans, 5G wireless technology is the pipeline needed to transfer data. But 5G is still being implemented in some areas and not widely available outside of major urban hubs. Once it is fully in place, “all communities, regardless of size or political persuasion, can be smart,” Lam told a panel at the expo.
“Wireless represents the new level of public works that cities must invest in,” Simrall said. “We know 6G, 7G will come, and we have to prepare.
”The answer, experts say, is creating public-private partnerthat allow municipalities to offer their greatest asset – their infrastructure of roads, buildings and utilities – for businesses to introduce their products to the public in exchange for the companies’ expertise and hardware. Such collaboration can help even smaller cities integrate technology into underserved areas. Private sponsors providing 5G capacity and other technology allowed the suburban Atlanta city of Peachtree Corners to set up the Curiosity Lab testing environment within the city’s infrastructure
“Cities as owners of the infrastructure can have a role as a proving ground for technology to help it graduate into a public environment,” said Brian Johnson, Peachtree Corners’ city manager.
“If we can bring together P3 (public-private partnership) opportunities to engage public and private needs, P3 can help attain equity and inclusion,” said Faye DiMassimo of Deloitte.
Faris Oweis, chief instigator for Instigation Protocol, cited examples of public-private partnerships in the use of cryptocurrency technology for transportation and voting in Seoul, Korea, and ways to improve traveler ﬂow in airports by speeding up security lines.
“It takes risk tolerance, political will and a data mindset,” he told a crowd at the Atlanta expo. “Collaboration between cities and businesses is needed. The system currently is inequitable but offers a great opportunity for entrepreneurship.
”Another case of such collaboration is The Ray (theray.org), a sustainable 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in west central Georgia that includes embedded solar panels, charging and tire pressure stations, roadside ecosystems and IoT connectivity for vehicle communication.
“Public entities recognize their roles,” The Ray executive director Allie Kelly said. “Otherwise it takes a lot of different companies to be involved. Cities can make infrastructure available to experts in these ﬁelds.
”Still another example is in Toronto where Sidewalk Labs – smart city subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent holding company – plans to invest $1.3 billion to upgrade a mostly vacant 12-acre section of industrial waterfront along Lake Ontario into a connected community (quaysideto.ca). Those plans include a mixed-use development of residential, retail and ofﬁce spaces; extension of a light-rail system; redesigned streets to reduce car use and promote biking and walking; and installation of public Wi-Fi and data-collecting sensors to guide housing and trafﬁc decisions. A third-party research ﬁrm’s analysis determined the project could create 44,000 jobs and generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenue.
Digital twin can simulate smart city enhancements
Before committing resources to smart technology, community leaders need to know how it might work in their public space. One way to test this is through simulation models that can demonstrate how smart devices interact with a city’s speciﬁc character.
A team of researchers at Georgia Tech discussed such models at the Smart City Digital Twin Convergence Workshop held Sept. 16-17, 2019, in Atlanta, attended by representatives from several U.S. cities. The virtual platforms are designed to function like simulation in manufacturing by inputting data to replicate IoT effects on a city’s infrastructure and analyze the results. “You take data on mobility, energy, water and build a systems approach,” Lam said. “It’s a real-time analysis so you can see in real time the number of cars, pedestrians, trafﬁc volume happening at a particular intersection.
”John Taylor, a professor in Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, published the ﬁrst research paper on smart city digital twins in 2017 along with Neda Mohammadi, the city infrastructure analytics director of the Network Dynamics Lab at Georgia Tech.
Because a digital twin uses data as it occurs, it can create outcomes that vary due to changing conditions. A digital twin of Georgia Tech’s campus in Taylor’s lab showed a building consuming more energy during a stretch of hot weather.
“How do you integrate the data – mobility data and energy data and water data – how do you combine those together to create a more holistic view?” Lam said. “The next stage is how can you utilize data to think more about predictive analytics – what can happen in the future depending on growth and other trends, other variables.
“Then the third stage is to think about the prescriptive – modeling what happens if a hurricane hits and how it will it affect this site, affect mobility and systems scenarios that can happen, not just future linear predictions. It provides more ﬂexible frameworks for decision-makers to adapt and really try to think about a virtual environment that replicates the physical, then use it for better decision-making.”
A quest for security, transparency
The more data that ﬂows between machines, the greater the risk such information could fall into the wrong hands. That’s why efforts are needed both to keep information safe and private and to manage the massive amount of data the IoT creates.
Blockchain technology, originally created to track the use of cryptocurrency, is seen as an option to secure public data and enhance other services.
Elliott Chun of Chainhaus, a company specializing in blockchain, artiﬁcial intelligence and data science, said analyzing data such as school attendance ﬁgures can help governments decide where to focus resources.
“When you make this kind of information available, it starts to change the behavior and culture,” he said. “The challenge is how to build trust between the city and residents, and blockchain can be a tool to do this.
”In particular, voting is a public activity for which security and traceability are crucial. One company featured at the Atlanta expo, Voatz, has created a platform in which votes can be cast from a smartphone using biometric identity veriﬁcation and secured by blockchain technology. Hilary Braseth, director of product for Voatz, told ISE the system already has been used in more than 50 U.S. elections, including expanded pilot programs in Denver and Utah in 2019.“Since these initial governmental pilots, we’ve expanded to ultimately be operational across 29 counties in ﬁve states,” Braseth said. “Looking toward (2020), several states are planning to use Voatz for military/overseas voting, and a few more are eyeing voters with disabilities.
”Yet learning the potential of such technology and putting it to use effectively is a hurdle faced by city leaders who may be unfamiliar with these advancements.
“Making the ecosystem efﬁcient needs to hap-pen in the design phase,” said Jay Smith, COO of Factom, a blockchain innovations company. “Government is slow. You need to start with a small piece, then roll out improvements from in-novation laboratories to work into existing systems. You don’t need to blow everything up and start from scratch. There is incremental value to starting piece by piece.
“Many still think blockchain is bitcoin. It will ﬁnd its way because it’s an appropriate solution to a lot of different things.”
“Smart cities require funding, which requires political will,” said Samson Williams of Axes and Eggs, a bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining company and blockchain consultant. “If your community doesn’t trust you, innovation doesn’t happen. You have to be transparent and accountable, and blockchain can help.” Securing personal privacy is another concern. With cameras, sensors and other smart objects be-coming more common, residents must adjust to being watched by devices at all times.
“Cameras can be beautiful and they can be dangerous,” said Ivo Rook, Sprint’s senior vice president of the internet of things. “We need to design restrictions from the beginning. But in the end, we have to ask: Are we willing to give up a little bit of privacy?
”That includes automated personal assistants al-ready used in homes.
“People are more concerned about privacy,” said James Leverette, research engineer with the Southern Company. “We have to tell our consumers, ‘You have control. If you don’t like a voice-controlled device, unplug it or throw it in a drawer.’ They want to make sure they have control over their network and do not have to give that up.”
Creating inclusion, educating the public
Even as 21st century 5G connectivity comes on line, many city dwellers still lack broadband internet access. Experts in Atlanta agreed communities must educate their populations and ensure connectivity reaches all corners or risk creating another level of socioeconomic division.
“Smart cities are a conduit for social justice,” Lam said during the expo panel. “It can empower communities and be a tool to address inequality. It can allow city managers and mayors access to better data to address inequality.”
In particular, students without internet access may be un-able to log on for online learning, a practice now common-place in afﬂuent areas.
“You need to provide connectivity beyond downtown to underserved areas to help students,” said Charisse Stokes, executive director of TechMGM.
“People can’t fathom what infra-structure you have to change, and how you orchestrate that together is crucial,” said Steve LeFrancois, CTO of Enterprise Solutions, Public Sector, for Verizon. “The same policies and procedures have been in place for decades, so the training and education of the public are crucial.
”Clayton Banks is CEO of Silicon Harlem, a social venture seeking to bridge the tech gap in that New York community where 40% of residents have no broadband access. Like many at the Atlanta event, he said such enhancements can’t be made available only to those who can afford them.
“Cities are not 100% prepared to be smart,” Banks said. “A technology-enabled city needs to take into consideration who lives in the city and how the infrastructure creates equity rather than a divide. It’s a wonderful opportunity if it can be designed for equity. … (But) you cannot be a smart city if someone is not connected. If connectivity isn’t across the board, people feel left out.”
To create trust and have residents buy into the advancements offered, public ofﬁcials must use their ﬁnancial re-sources wisely.
“Your budget is more than numbers – it represents your values,” said Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, who noted how many cities are “struggling with disrupters” such as electric bikes, scooters and other technology that require thoughtful policies.
“The reason why cities exist is to provide services. You need data to do this properly.” “Your budget is your moral and social contract with your community,” said Maurice Henderson, di-rector of government partnerships for Bird, manufacturer of electric scooters. “Transportation equity is needed and new mobility options that give access to people in diverse communities. It can be an equalizer, a democratizer.” Once those needs are met, connecting residents to services in a faster, better way could help level social playing ﬁelds. Lam said blending technology with the human element is the key to making cities smarter sooner.
“It’s a process,” she told ISE. “Cities have done a lot in the physical environment and infrastructure with sensors, street-lights, solar. We’ve made a lot of progress in virtual and digital infrastructure but what we haven’t done as much is think about integration of it all into the social infrastructure. That is the third level, how people relate with the physical infrastructure and move seamlessly between layers. It’s still very separate but we have to connect it at the very end. That involves the level of literacy and application of what we are trying to accomplish or do rather than just trying to be fancy.”
Adapting to this new reality may take time. In a recent episode of Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast (podcast.iise.org), Plattenburg likened today’s transition to autonomous devices to the 20th century adjustment to self-operating elevators that did not require an operator.
“Today, all of us would think that’s ridiculous if we got on an elevator and somebody else pushed the buttons,” she said. “We’re going to be slow to adapt to that and feel comfortable with that.”
Plattenburg cited surveys that showed while a majority of younger people are more comfortable riding in autonomous vehicles, older generations are less trusting of the technology and still need more convincing.
“I think it’s going to be a generational thing,” she said. “It’s going to take us a while to be comfortable with the new technology because we’re giving up control.
”Yet the plus side of people being able to depend on automation to get around and live better as they grow older could help bridge that acceptance gap.
“I think as people see how it will change their lives for the better and not just in terms of control, they’ll see they have more control over their lives,” Plattenburg said. “I think it’s baby steps.”