Smart everything. That's the direction the world is moving in, and what folks walking around the Mobile World Congress (MWC) this week in Barcelona want everyone to believe.
It's an escalating trend as the Internet of Things (IoT) concept grabs more attention globally and machine-to-machine connectivity becomes the new norm. Smart phones are changing the way people, machines and services interact in shopping centers, homes, office buildings and schools. And, now there's more of an IoT business case for changing the way cities work, especially as urban centers convert to megacities housing most of the world's population. About 70 percent of the world's population is expected to live in cities by 2050, a forecast number thrown around MWC several times in recent days by various sources.
Using technology advancements in sensor-based activity monitoring and piggybacking on cellular, WiFi and other mobile networking know-how, governments, technology providers and mobile operators are teaming up to develop and roll out a range of interactive services and IT applications aimed at improving city living and reducing costs.
A few key sweet spots are currently getting a bulk of the smart city attention and big data analytics brainpower. Mobility and transport, waste management and energy usage reduction are frequently top of mind for city planners, said Liam Quirke, IHS senior analyst.
"Municipalities appear to be well aware of the impact that congestion is having on their cities and are increasingly piloting parking and traffic management solutions. It is well documented that much of congestion in cities can be caused by residents looking for parking spaces," Quirke said. "On the parking side, this involves the deployment of sensors in the ground feeding information to citizens relating to the occupancy of the parking space via their smartphones."
Besides making public transportation systems and roads more intelligent and responsive to the flow of people and peak demand hours, many cities are also tackling waste management. Deployments typically rely on sensors to determine the level of waste in a garbage bin, which improves the way city officials schedule collection and map most efficient route (again reducing emissions), said Quirke.
Additionally, some cities are looking at other ways to link safety, emergency management, crowd control, social services, tourism and health and well-being activities.
In Dubai, for instance, smart cities efforts directed at improving the quality of life of citizens center on helping people monitor their health for diabetes; increasing energy efficiency in high-rise buildings and making it easier for residents to interact with government departments, said Khalifa Al Shamsi, chief of digital services at mobile operator Etisalat.
While many smart cities solutions revolve around the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology and hardware devices in everyday life, don't try to sell a device or technology-centric solution to the likes of Antoni Vives i Tomàs, deputy mayor for urban habitat for Barcelona, which as the GSMA Mobile World Capital city, is investing heavily in becoming a leading smart city worldwide.
"I don't want to talk about devices or sensors. I want to talk about solutions that can help my mother. I want to talk about solutions for my brother. I want to talk about solutions that serve the taxpayer. I want to talk about people with you," he told a roomful of MWC attendees.
As always, there's a flip side to this equation.
Many of these urban smart city projects will require a long planning cycle, said Bill Morelli associate director, machine-to-machine and Internet of Things, at IHS.
"You are not going to have a full blown smart city in two years. This is a 10 to15-year planning process," Morelli said. "What we're seeing, though, is that many cities want to get this right, and they are taking the steps to ensure that they get these early steps right."
Adding to that, Quirke said, "In order to gain the most value from the smart city, municipalities need to consider it holistically rather than just deploying disparate individual solutions. My understanding is that a lot of the initial work centers around the platform used to control, interact and collect [and] analyze data from the variety of different connected devices that may be deployed as part of a solution. A platform should be used across city functions, and this, of course, means interacting and using a number of different standards and technologies, invariably leading to complexity. In theory, if this groundwork is done correctly, cities will be able to increase the scale of their smart city solutions easier in the future. With a single cross-function platform in place, there should not be as much of a need to consider the deployment of further platforms and to ensure subsequent interoperability further down the line."