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Realizing the Vision of Smart Cities

K.S. Ram Mohan describes smart cities and how they may come to life

The 21st century requires a whole new way of visualizing urban development to tackle the problem of rapid urbanization and climate change and to improve livability in cities. The concept of smart cities is an evolving concept and a new multidimensional, city services delivery model. It is a forward-looking, transformational strategy that shapes the planning and development of the city by increasing citizen engagement by empowering citizens through the use of technology. It also enables sustainable economic development, while improving the efficiency of cross-domain, cross-city operations and enhancing quality of life. Responding in near real time to the needs of the citizens is a core feature of smart cities, which are increasingly becoming networked communities.

A smart city is an integrated system of systems that has to be viewed holistically. It includes not only people, processes and traditional, critical infrastructure components, but also incorporates newer information and communications technologies (ICT), such as Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data analytics and space/geographical (geolocation) information.

From a systems engineering perspective, smart cities are IT-intensive systems of systems because IT is the “smart” glue that enables this integration of systems and the intelligent flow of information between different subsystems. Because smart cities utilize ICT to leverage the collective intelligence of interconnected systems like the critical physical infrastructures supporting transportation, power, water, etc., and also community-oriented social infrastructures that facilitate knowledge creation and knowledge management, they are also referred to as “intelligent cities.”

A Hypothetical Example

Let’s examine a hypothetical example to understand what this means. A fairly common public safety-related scenario in a metro area is an evening traffic accident in the city center that requires an emergency response and the closure of a major intersection for several hours. It’s important for first responders to have immediate notification of the crash so that they can be routed to the scene automatically within minutes. Analytics triggers video cameras at the intersection to capture and stream live video of the accident scene at the intersection to first responders and the city’s traffic management center. The video helps validate the traffic-related incident in real time to provide the required situational awareness.

Today, the ubiquitous, humble light pole has become a critical infrastructure platform for ensuring public safety. The smart light pole can support a range of capabilities. For example, the lighting levels can be raised or the LED lights can be made to flash to enable public safety personnel to get to the scene of an accident or where an emergency situation has occurred. Sensors and luminaire controllers, which enable smart street lights to dynamically adapt to all kinds of changing conditions and situations, also trigger LED streetlights in the affected intersection and surrounding areas to brighten to provide more light to first responders on the scene.

The smart light pole can also support other functionality features required by smarter cities like traffic monitoring, air quality monitoring, Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity and intelligent video surveillance. Digital signage on smart light poles can be used to redirect traffic on alternate routes around the closed intersection and traffic signals can automatically be reprogrammed to mitigate the effect of the increased traffic on these alternate routes. This also enables parking restrictions to be imposed almost instantly on these routes to cope with the extra traffic volume. Transit buses are re-routed with transit users receiving automatic notifications on their smartphones of alternate stops for their commute home.

This requires complex, integrated IT systems that enable not just the collection of large amounts of data on city life transmitted by different sensors in near real-time, but also aggregating data from different sources and city systems. Also, presenting the data in different formats via dashboards provides far greater insight into what’s going on in the city.

Data analytics, particularly predictive analytics, helps identify potential problems before they occur. It plays a critical role in making context-sensitive data more meaningful. It’s not about the volume of data generated by sensors and other connected devices; the true value lies in the ability to analyze large volumes of data created by millions of sensors and devices in near real-time to generate actionable insights that can streamline operational workflows to make better operational decisions. The ultimate value for public sector agencies is business intelligence and predictive analysis that is timely and actionable to respond faster to evolving trends and improve citizen services. In the case of public safety, predictive analytics can also help prevent serious incidents before they occur and enable law enforcement to intercept dangerous trends.

The Early Stages

The reality is we are at an early stage in the development of smart cities. Though the focus is on technology, environmentally sustainable and inclusive urban development policies that address socioeconomic aspects of growth are also needed. Developing smart cities also requires innovative business models and processes, as well as good governance, for delivering services efficiently, while taking into consideration the existing dynamics and ecosystem of the city. To realize the vision of smart cities, data sources, primarily sensors, are needed to gather data in near real-time.

It’s also important to have cross-domain integration of systems developed using a service-oriented architecture approach that are interoperable and have open communications links between them, while still maintaining the right level of security, which leads us to a platform that’s the foundation for supporting not only the integration strategy using REST APls based on business rules and logic, but also for real-time data assimilation and event processing. The platform should also include a portal that provides a dashboard for city planners and city operations managers to view vital information from different city systems like energy management, water resources management and traffic management that’s analyzed and visually presented for viewing city functions and operations holistically. Finally, actionable business architecture is invaluable for planning and developing this cross-domain integration strategy.