Is it time to make every city a smart city?

If you ask electrical engineers, venture capitalists or city employees what the terms smart city and Internet of Things means, each will likely have their own variation. It’s time to define these terms and create consensus about the goals and implications of a smart city so we can start exploring the technologies required to build them.

A crude shorthand for smart city could be sensorised city—a city in which thousands or even millions of small digital sensors are deployed nearly everywhere—on vehicles, people, buildings and infrastructure.

The data from these sensors is collected in real-time and brought back to a central location for analysis by a person or computer. Signals then must travel back out again to actuators that can put decisions into action. In many cases, the time to sense, decide and actuate is milliseconds.

Smart city projects strive to bring the benefits of automation, speed and computation to complex municipal systems and to make these systems more adaptive, responsive and scalable. Because these systems tend to be large and distributed, sensor networks play an important role in achieving the smart city vision. Gathering real-time data about distributed systems and giving people the ability to make decisions about that data are at the heart of the smart city.

Right now, quick and accurate sensors such as accelerometers, pressure gauges and thermometers are widely available at relatively low cost. In addition, high capacity storage, processing and computing services are widely available on-demand at low, scalable costs such as AWS, Azure, Google Cloud.

The missing element in this equation is a low-latency, flexible, reliable and secure communications network—both wired and wireless—that can gather real-time data from sensors, deliver it for local processing and decisions and return those decisions to the world for action.

So a more comprehensive definition of a smart city could be a city with an advanced communication network that connects real-time sensors with automated decision and response tools and then conveys data needed to make decisions to those who need it.

When all of the building blocks are in place, smart city technology enables first responders to stitch together real-time video and data from sensors, body and dashboard cameras to improve their response times and save lives. In the field of education, it enables STEM students in a rural community to learn biology by viewing microorganisms under a 4K microscope online, remotely operating the microscope in real-time and holding high-definition video conferences with world-class university researchers from miles away via a low-latency, ultra-high-speed connection.

One innovative public-private partnership working to foster the advancement of smart city infrastructure is the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR). This ₹679.95 crore ($100 million) programme is a joint effort by the National Science Foundation and a wireless industry consortium made up of more than 25 of the largest industry players to create city-scale testing platforms to accelerate fundamental research on wireless communication and networking technologies.

Programmes such as this one are evidence of the growing momentum of smart cities throughout the country. Smart cities require strong, fast and resilient networks. Across America, we have public-private investment coming online as the technology is ripe for deployment.

Joe Kochan is the Chief Operating Officer of US Ignite, an organisation that spurs the creation of next-generation applications and services that leverage advanced networking technologies to build the foundation for smart communities.

First published by EE Times U.S.