Only Smart Cities will win

Smart Cities enhance quality of life and attract young, well educated people – and thus also innovative businesses. Consequently, “smartness” will become key to the competitiveness of a city. But cities might well achieve that status in quite different ways.

All the participants in the expert discussion are agreed: the future of the city will be digital. “Electronics will be everywhere in the city, and the equipment used will be multifunctional,” asserts Ramin Lavae Mokhtari, founder and CEO of ICE Gateway, a manufacturer of smart, multifunctional street lamps. Yet when it comes to defining what a Smart City actually is, there are differing opinions. Mokhtari, for example, sees a Smart City first and foremost as a purely digital infrastructure which, after being installed, can be expanded at any time for sectors such as energy, security, transport and marketing. “It will be available day and night, collecting localised data for the city. Various applications can be gradually introduced as and when needed.” Anne-Caroline Erbstößer, a scientist with the Technologiestiftung Berlin technology foundation, interprets the concept much more broadly: “The Smart City is a concept for the city of the future. It covers a wide variety of areas, focusing primarily on mobility, energy, and the digital layer, overarching everything and interconnecting all the areas.” For Karl Lehn­hoff, Head of Smart Grid at EBV Elektronik, the primary aim is to enhance the quality of life of the people living in the city, or at least to maintain it at a consistent level, despite the predictions of many more people moving into cities in future.

Safeguarding quality of life in the surrounding areas too

The opposite trend to urbanisation is that rural populations will decrease. Consequently, Axel Schüßler, Deputy Chairman of the German Federal Association “Bundesverband Smart City” expands the concept also to small towns and rural areas, and uses the term “smart communities”: “Quality of life also has to be maintained in those areas, and that means providing people with the kind of services that are already an established part of city life.” That view is affirmed by Professor Jochen Kreusel, Head of Market Innovation in the Power Grids division of ABB: “Many of the things we are discussing under the umbrella term ‘Smart City’ can certainly be applied to help people continue living in the country. So it is really not just about what we do in the city itself, but also about maintaining the quality of life of the surrounding areas.”

Differing approaches

Views differ as to how a Smart City or smart community can be created, however: “There are two basic approaches,” explains Prof. Jochen Kreusel. “One initially provides for the installation of sensors and establishment of a communications infrastructure. That provides more data, which can then be utilised by third parties, such as service providers.” They don’t necessarily even yet have any idea what they can do with the data, but a database has been created as a first step. “This creates a market for new, data-based services,” Kreusel states. “The other approach is that the city utilises the data infrastructure itself, and is also the network owner. The focus in this approach is on the city looking to optimise its own services.”

Practical experience

There are already examples of both approaches being put into practice today. Ramin Mokhtari cites the installation of 160 smart lights in the Adlershof technology park in Berlin, implemented by ICE Gateway and based on Deutsche Telekom M2M networks. The data from this installation belongs to the operating company Wista Management. It will then be provided to various applications in the role of a “Smart City factory”, and will be gradually expanded. The complete installation will be amortised in around five years thanks to the energy savings. Telefónica expert Koltermann also gives an example: In Santander, the first step was to install 20,000  sensors recording a wide variety of different data throughout the city area which was made available via a portal. Valencia took the other approach, as Koltermann points out. There, the existing data resources in the city were made available to the local populace on an open data portal. “In my experience, most cities already hold a lot of data,” reports Karl Lehnhoff. “If it is made available on a portal, a business model will develop around it, and companies will write apps to make use of it.” That does work, as Koltermann reports: “As one example, we built a portal in conjunction with a city – also in Spain – to which the city then merely uploaded weather and water temperature data. They didn’t have the money to develop apps to run on it. So the data was made freely accessible on the portal. That enabled developers at the local university, for example, to design an app providing tourist information.” The portal is based on the Fiware platform. Fiware – described by some as the “European cloud” – provides an open cloud computing infrastructure together with a collection of tools and services for the development of Internet applications. The solution thus offers an alternative to manufacturer-specific Internet platforms such as Google or Amazon. “The advantage of Fiware for cities is that there are no licence costs involved, the data is stored securely, and the typical departmental thinking that is common in cities at present can be overcome,” says Sven Koltermann. Axel Schüßler also believes it’s essential to get away from that kind of silo mentality: “On many projects today, individual services are implemented with no thought for what’s happening around them. But we need solutions based on a layered approach.” That demands data or Internet of Things platforms, whereby all access to devices and data use is controlled by roles and rights – such as Schüßler offers with his start-up IoT Connctd, for the smart building and home sector. “When such a platform is in place, devices and data can be re-used once set up and created – creating a kind of digital recycling.”

Internet versus Intranet

There is, however, always a degree of public concern about data: who is recording it, who has access to it, and exactly what data is in fact being collected? “If a city merely uses the Internet to create a Smart City infrastructure, I think that’s very dangerous. Because then the data will not be collected by the city, but by different players altogether,” warns Ramin Mokhtari. So his view is that cities have to build their own communications infrastructures. “City administrators just need more local information at their fingertips; they need to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the city. And it should be the city that then decides who gets what information. That requires B2B structures, which have to be established in parallel with the Internet itself – though the Internet can act as the communications network for B2C services.”

Who is the better data provider?

Anne-Caroline Erbstößer also sees benefits if the city controls its own data: “The city is an experienced data provider, and also enjoys a degree of public acceptance when it comes to handling personal data. It would be a good idea for cities to focus on maintaining and enhancing that acceptance. To do so, it should play an active role in advancing digitisation, and be open to new technologies. But above all, cities should not give other players ‘carte blanche’ in the handling of sensitive data.” Sven Koltermann – whose employer Telefónica is just such an “external” player, as a provider of services – sees the matter somewhat differently: “I don’t think it’s a good idea for cities to isolate themselves. And the Internet already exists today, as do mobile communications networks. The data provided by both ought to be utilised.” And Telefónica is doing just that – though mobile customers’ data is anonymised so as not to be traceable. “Even then, there’s still a lot that can be done with the data: anonymised and aggregated location data, for example, can be used for traffic management systems, or roaming data can serve as the basis for providing tailored services to tourists.” Koltermann’s view is backed by Axel Schüßler: “For reasons of sustainability, apart from anything else, it’s a good thing not having to build a third or fourth parallel infrastructure. However, the data should then be made available within a structured process, so as to assure data protection.” Mokhtari stresses that he sees a city solution not as an isolating barrier, but as an essential tool for the city to make its own decisions as and when necessary. Schüßler points out, however, that different functions entail different requirements in terms of communications technology, such as with regard to bandwidth or latency: “The various infrastructure technologies therefore differ in their suitability to provide the wide-ranging functions required in a Smart City.”

Tough task implementing innovations

Whatever the Smart City infrastructure will be like, it will certainly demand capital investment: in sensors, in communications systems and in cloud platforms. The technical solutions already exist, including actual products. But many cities have not yet joined the smart world in terms of their investment approach. “There are still too many cities who award tenders to the cheapest bidder,” observes Karl Lehn­hoff. He cites street lighting as an example: “Smart street lamps are more expensive, but their investment cost will be amortised in three or four years. And they will likely operate for as long as 25 years. So cities need to not just look at the acquisition cost, but opt for solutions that are also future-proof, such as featuring integrated charging stations.” On the other hand, there are also cities who are interested, and are looking to the future, but as Kreusel points out: “For many cities, talking to industry providers and gathering know-how prior to making an investment poses a major challenge.” Technologiestiftung Berlin has observed similar situations, as Anne-Caroline Erbstößer recounts: “It’s tough getting the idea of innovation into the heads of city managers.” It’s not just about stubbornness, she concedes, but often also reflects worries about becoming dependent on specific technologies. After all, who can say whether new, innovative products will still be supported, and interoperable, in 10 or 20 years’ time? “Many cities are not yet investing because they are seeing how rapidly technology is advancing and prices are falling,” Ramin Lavae Mokhtari comments. “If they hold back on investing, they will get a more mature product at a fraction of the initial cost.” It’s not enough just to gather know-how and buy-in technology, however, as Professor Kreusel stresses: “To overcome the much-cited silo mentality in municipal organisations, the organisations themselves will have to be updated.”

Getting the public engaged

There is another key question that has to be considered in relation to a Smart City project, according to Sven Koltermann: “How do we get the public engaged in it? The added value that the new services will bring needs to be made clear to them.” In that context, it is important for the city itself to think about what its role actually is, and what it should be doing for its inhabitants. Erbstößer outlines this role as including the provision and maintenance of essential public services – light, power, water, fast Internet and administration of certain basic functions. “A city should simply ask its inhabitants what their most pressing problems are. It can then explain how Smart City solutions can remedy those problems, and why money is being spent on them.” If the change process focuses on the specific concerns of the public at large and the businesses operating in the community, every Smart City will be different, as Axel Schüßler explains. “It will be very different in Berlin to a small town in the Black Forest or a newly designed city in China.”

Long-term policy-making essential

But cities will need to adopt a long-term strategy, setting broad objectives, as Anne-Caroline Erbstößer emphasises. “It will doubtless take decades to transform a community into a Smart City,” Karl Lehnhoff adds. “But the objectives have to be defined now,” asserts Anne-Caroline Erbstößer. As Berlin has done: The statute on the transition to renewables (known as the “Energiewendegesetz” in German) passed by the Berlin Senate in April 2016 stipulated that the state of Berlin should become climate-neutral by the year 2050. “As a result, the necessary technologies can now be procured and the funding required to achieve the target can be calculated.” The long time horizons involved in creating a Smart City do, however, demand lasting commitment on the part of political leaders over many years. The Smart City is thus ultimately a project that has to be managed at the top-most level of city government. Anne-Caroline Erbstößer issues a warning: “If the political leadership changes every few years, and the new city government has completely different ideas, then it will be extremely difficult to implement a Smart City.”

(picture credits: IndustryAgents: Dominik Gierke)

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