The Rise of the Intelligent City

Many Canadians increasingly regard economic forecasts with a jaundiced eye, whether the predictions emanate from academics, bank head economists or the Governor of the Bank of Canada. One reason is the profession’s tendency to distil the future by looking to the past, a deadly approach given the epochal structural change in the world’s economies.

The same holds true for urban planning. Indeed, how we will build and operate our cities is closely intertwined with this remarkable economic transformation. Our exponentially expanding digital/creative economy, albeit disturbingly shackled by increasing income inequality, requires a re-think of not just our economic model, but also a quantum shift in how cities are designed and built. Recently, for example, Building looked at the close relationship between urban form and transportation design in terms of the current and future success for the Toronto/Waterloo creative corridor (February-March, 2015). Embedded, quite literally, in the re-construction of our built urban form must be the sophisticated supports that will allow truly smart cities to emerge.

What is the Smart City?

Is Smart City just another buzz term or does it represent a real urban transformation in the face of rapid and systemic economic change. Some definitions seem very broad, for example defines it as “a developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas; economy, mobility, environment, people, living, and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through strong human capital, social capital, and/or ICT infrastructure.”

Such a broad definition couples aspirational values with functional instruments and links together several discrete but, or as we shall see, entwined concepts. These include the transformative creative or knowledge economy, smart growth city planning and the digitally intelligent city.

Stuart Cowan is Chief Scientist for the Redwood, Wash.-based Smart Cities Council, an industry group composed of many of the major private sector technology companies working with cities. In a fulsome interview, he first focuses his own definition on digital technology. “The ‘smart’ of the Smart City is the digital side, the ‘smart’ is around data, it is around sensing the environment in new ways; it is around providing services that are digitally enabled; it is around apps; it is around citizen engagement [using digital technology]….it’s data, it’s software, it’s hardware, it’s sensors.” Similarly, says Cisco Canada’s senior advisor Ron Gordon,When we look at Smart Cities, we see it as using ICT (information communication technology) to deliver services more effectively and more uniformly throughout the city.” And i-Canada co-founder Barry Gander adds an interesting nuance suggesting that we are reaching Smart City 2.0, or the intelligent city that may not only permit evidence-based applications but include the use of artificial intelligence where logarithms take appropriate action without human intervention.

Current returns from Smart City technology

The Smart Cities Council identifies a series of drivers, both positive and negative, propelling municipalities along the Smart City track. Pressures include growing urbanization; intensified stresses on the urban environment; inadequate and aging infrastructure; growing economic competition; increased citizenry expectations and pressing environmental challenges. On the supportive side, rapidly improving technological capabilities along with declining technology costs and the opportunities arising from the exponentially growing Internet of Things (IoT) are offering cities the chance to respond positively.

But first, says Cowan, it is important to understand that no city in the world is yet a fully realized Smart City. While there is an increasing number moving towards more integrative applications “it will be a journey of at least 10 to 20 years” before the truly “profound” smart city emerges. Even then the pace of social change and decreasing technological constraints means that it will always be a process of “becoming” rather than “arriving.” This is not to say, however, that no cities are aggressively moving toward using cutting edge digital technologies to address an increasingly wide range of urban issues employing integrated, open platforms capable of handling big data to solve problems and generally improve quality of life. And a great deal more are employing specific applications, albeit well-short of being driven by systematic strategic plans.

While Gander says that “there are no areas not being affected by Smart City applications,” Cowan singles out the smart technologies currently most often applied as smart water systems, smart energy systems and smart transportation systems. Gordon adds LED street lighting as a “low hanging fruit,” but laments that when adding such lighting, cities often ignore the opportunity to integrate or “piggyback” other potential smart initiatives such as Wi-Fi and video capabilities that can advance other smart initiatives such as public connectivity, traffic monitoring and public security. Systems employing sensors to detect water leakages are popular, while Calgary has extended sensors into its water shed areas to monitor the potential for another devastating flood.

 A caveat: Smart Growth and/or Smart Cities

But before looking at the technical challenges of and steps required becoming a Smart City, it is important to return to the relationship between Smart Cities and Smart Growth Cities. Ray Tomalty, who teaches in the Masters of Community Planning program at the University of Vancouver Island and consults with cities on Smart Growth, raises what he calls a yellow flag of caution about conferences dominated by information technology companies promising “to solve all the problems in cities.” In fact, Smart City technologies can end up simply tweaking the problems of urban sprawl, poor land use, inefficient transit, traffic gridlock and weak sustainability. “It is just not about attaching new technology to an inefficient environment, but about figuring out how to reshape the urban environment using the new information technology,” he says. “It is not just about how information technology affects the environment but how the environment affects the information technology.”

This said, Tomalty believes much of what the Smart City offers can be central to Smart Growth. This starts with the enormous amount of data generated that supports evidence-based research on how the city works and what are the outcomes. He cites how Montréal is using data generated by cyclists’ smartphones to rationalize its bike path system development and how road sensors can help monitor and influence traffic patterns to reduce demand for wider roads. In turn, the latter leads to more compact urban environments. With 40 per cent of city land dedicated to roads and parking, apps already in place in many cities that signal where parking is available is reducing car-dedicated land requirements. Real time infrastructure monitoring extends its longevity, reduces costs and frees up resources for areas like transit.

In terms of getting around the city, information technology is already having a radical impact including improving the efficiency of car sharing programs and providing real time information to transit users and providers. Once a staple of science fiction, the driverless car is close to a reality and which Tomalty believes will greatly enhance car sharing. First, however, he sees autonomous vehicle technology applied to bus transit, reducing costs by as much as 75 per cent, thereby facilitating significant expansion.

Despite Tomalty’s reservation about industry marketing, interviews with industry representatives suggest the differences yet crucial links between Smart Growth and Smart Cities is very much part of their universe. “To be a Smart City means you’re using the digital technologies in the service of city-led initiatives around livability, workability and sustainability,” says Cowan echoing the Council’s official definition. So, he continues, you have to start with urban planning and the citizens’ and government’s vision for the city. “We keep emphasizing to our clients and our partner companies [that] the Smart City is still about people experiencing a very high quality of life,” including inclusivity, all within the constraints of climate change, water scarcity and air pollution. Similarly, the Council’s Guide warns against portraying Smart Cities as only about technical digital streamlining while forgetting its people focus. In fact, an entire chapter is dedicated to how all stakeholders can be brought together to develop an inclusive vision.

Perhaps too often (but certainly not always) some of this gets lost in how cities themselves make decisions. Gordon reports that cities frequently respond positively only when suggested technologies fit into one or more of four “buckets.” Initiatives must: 1. reduce expenses and extend budgets; 2. create new revenue models; 3. engage citizens by delivering information and better services; or 4. foster start-ups or innovation. While the last suggests awareness of promoting the creative economy, one might have hoped to see as part of these bottom line drivers some that are more tangibly related to livable and sustainable urban form. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tomalty finds a huge disconnect between the smart growth/smart city expertise that urban planning students take with them when they graduate and the real work world of city government and developers. “I cannot think of another profession where there is such a gap between what students are taught and what they have to face when they take up their profession,” he laments.

Breaking the curse of silos and realizing the promise of open platforms

A major problem of the prevalent piecemeal approach to focusing on single applications is the dreaded “silo effect.” Silos emerge when a particular departmental functionality, say energy, implements a specific smart technology such as smart metres in isolation from other services and functions. Two problems emerge: first, the lack of a common platform may mean that each function incurs the extra cost of developing or purchasing its own, often proprietary system. Second, as a result of this lack of interoperability, there is limited ability for various functions to work in tandem.

When smart electrical and water meters, traffic road sensors, public security videos and so on operate on a common platform, not only are there financial savings, but it is much easier to incrementally add new services as a city implements its Smart City strategy. The focus must change from “there is an app for that” to there is a “system in which the app fits.” The Council, Gander, Cowan and Gordon all refer to this as evolving a system of systems. Thus, says Gander, “The Smart Traffic information interacts with data from the Smart Energy grid to optimize energy use by electric vehicles; they both interact with Smart Buildings to locate available parking locations, while the Smart Utilities function prioritizes the need to replace burnt-out street lights in areas being affected by heaviest traffic volume.”

But not only must there be a common system, it must be open to accommodate multiple types of devices and many different manufacturers, says Cowan. Think the Android model. It is a position overwhelmingly advocated by the industry and the Council because while companies compete vigorously, they also cooperate closely, focusing often on specific competencies and strengths. “There are cities in the world that are beginning to deploy quite a few very sophisticated smart technologies across almost every aspect of their operations, but they are still working to create that shared platform,” says Cowan. Barcelona is one of the most aggressive while Stockholm is using a triple-helix approach that brings government, business and post-secondary institutions together to realize the Smart City.

In February of this year, Europe’s Barcelona-driven City Protocol Foundation released its proposed agreement, titled “City Anatomy: A Framework to support City Governance, Evaluation and Transformation Europe” to create a common, open “system of systems” in cities. Samsung recently unveiled a SmartThings Hub that connects all IoT devices that don’t rely on an isolated proprietary system. Open standards, reports Gordon, also fosters a creative city’s economy. “When you have these open standards, you also open up to all these smart minds, these smart millennials, and what they can develop.”

Open Data

Closely tied to open protocols is the imperative for open data, albeit always tempered by privacy and security requirements, to support what Gander terms the “collaboration infrastructure.” With exponentially exploding numbers of instruments and sensors generating “big data,” with the growth of cloud-based storage systems to economically handle this deluge and with increasingly sophisticated analytic capabilities, the more open the access to this data the more rapid will be intelligent applications. In the May, 2014 issue of Canadian Business, Ivor Tossell points that IoT users “have effectively been turned into person-sized Internet-enabled sensors support,” and Montréal’s cyclist initiative suggests how this can be harnessed.

As Tomalty noted, the research potential supporting evidence-based planning is huge. But there are many existing examples of open data applications. In Chicago, for example, open data from city sensors giving real time readings of pollution levels led to an app that permits you to plan your daily walk/run on a route with the best air. In Charlotte, N.C., publicly displayed digital readings of energy use from 60 buildings resulted in significant energy savings.

Connectivity and Broadband

Broadband, supported by a multi-layered communication network, is the new fourth utility. In 2014, Toronto beat out Stratford, Ont. and five other international cities to be named winner of Intelligent Community of the Year by the annual Intelligent Community Forum (ICF). A major reason for the accolade came from the waterfront’s 12,000 new residences with 100Mbps broadband and 10Gbps networking to businesses with the world’s highest transmission rates. “Toronto is preparing the physical, human and digital infrastructure for continued success,” said the ICF. Still, neither Toronto nor any other Canadian city can boast blanket Wi-Fi, although Vancouver has its 2013 Strategy for developing a city wide wireless network. Gordon, however, cautions that Wi-Fi is but one communication protocol of many that will support the Smart City. Cellular, Bluetooth, fibre, legacy electrical lines and LoRa (a low power, low range with small data bits protocol used in agriculture but the backbone of Hamburg’s sophisticated port traffic control system) are just some.

When asked, all those interviewed strongly support making Smart City capacities key components of the proposed Federal government’s infrastructure stimulus program. Gander even argues it should concentrate on providing this infrastructure and adds that India has already set aside over $7 billion to make 20 cities smart with another 80 waiting in the wings for funding approval. This also means that new or restructured infrastructure must include what Cowan and Gordon call “smart layering” which includes both ensuring new smart investments are structured for multi-functional delivery, like the LED lighting example, as well as embedding such things as fibre optic conduits when constructing LRT or new storm sewer infrastructure.

How to become a Smart City

Becoming a fully Smart City is a complex, multi-layered and expensive process that includes a socio-cultural shift for citizens, their politicians and businesses. Gander goes so far as to say “creating a Smart City is only 10 percent technological; it is 90 percent social” that starts with an initial assessment of a city’s status in terms of “information technology, community orientation, governance structures, business innovation, human capital and community knowledge infrastructure.” Tomalty and the Council argue for intensifying the fundamental shift in how we plan our urban environments.

First, all agree, is the need for a strong champion within city government. “The most important step is the first step: establishing the governance for the project,” states Gander. “Which leaders are going to be the champions; who is going to drive it forward?” Whom this may be will depend on the governance model in place. In a strong mayor system, ideally it will be the mayor, but it may be a councillor assigned the appropriate functional responsibility (such as in Portland, Ore.) or the Chief Information Officer supported by council.

Second — this remains one of the most troubling lack with most Smart City initiatives — is the requirement for an integrated Strategic Plan. Those interviewed varied in their assessment of where Canadian cities are positioned in Smart City development. Gander maintains Canada is the world leader in the creation of “Intelligent Communities” citing Calgary, Ottawa, Fredericton, Halifax, Montréal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Waterloo, Ont. Gordon, however, considers Europe, driven by its high cost of energy and older buildings and infrastructure, plus new Asian greenfield cities as out in front. He could have added that they also have a more engrained affinity for public intervention and leadership. Over the last few months, however, he has found Canadian officials moving away from asking what is possible to what are the next steps. “Now the will is there; now the need is to plan,” he says, citing Montréal, as a city that has moved only over the last six months into full swing. He adds Toronto with its waterfront ICF award and Mississauga, Ont. with its city network now in place. Still, he adds, “no city has a full strategic plan in place.”

The third requirement, which Cowan also sees currently as the major hurdle, is procurement. The term covers two issues. The first is the challenge of being innovative where the lack of precedents adds a dreaded state of unfamiliarity for city investors. This is only compounded when clear and open standards, terminology, precedents, and so forth are lacking or poorly understood. “How do we write an RFP for that, how do we buy what we need, how do we have fair competition from world class vendors…that permit multiple vendors or a consortium of vendors with highly creative solutions that fit into the procurement system?” says Cowan, mimicking municipal decision makers.

But procurement also covers the demand placed on city budgets now stretched to the breaking point by decades of bad urban planning and faced with failing legacy infrastructure. Fortunately, smart technologies can significantly extend the life of existing infrastructure, permit its evidence-based replacement and reduce requirements for expansion. For the same reasons, politicians at all levels must see expenditures in terms of return on investment where costs are recouped, both through reduced future demands and through the enhanced growth of the knowledge economy. Again, this argues for including Smart City investments in the imminent stimulus program.

The Future is not the Past

The successful city, even in the near future, will be based on physical, human capital and communication “infrastructure” very different from the past, but all defined by “smart” and directed at livability, workability and sustainability. It will only be built with strong leadership prepared to champion the Smart City, but it will only succeed with intensive and meaningful engagement between individual citizens as well as business, educational institutions and civil society groups.   

Smart Cities

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