Smart cities are all about the community

The smart city is a vision whose time has come, thanks to advances in technology that could make the vision achievable. That said, the reality is far from here. Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council NA, identifies five infrastructure challenges for smart cities:

1.      Technology;

2.      Policy;

3.      Financing;

4.      Stakeholder engagement;

5.      Governance.

The integration of connected and/or autonomous cars into a smart city faces all of these challenges, according to Berst. “Most cities don't even do a good job of combining their existing transit systems. Now you bring in autonomous vehicles, will they compete with mass transit or be the last mile solution?”

Automotive and infrastructure: not in sync

Many smart infrastructure elements, such as traffic signals, sensors and lighting, have been deployed or well-piloted, according to Berst. When it comes to multimodal mass transit, there may be business-model questions to be resolved but the technical aspects are defined. As to the vehicles themselves, too many questions remain unanswered, Berst says. He points out that there is still no standard way for cars to communicate with each other and with infrastructure. “You can't have a world where Ford's connected cars can't talk to GM's and you can't afford to build one communications network along the highway for Ford and another for GM,” he says.

This is an area where the federal government needs to play a role, Berst believes. In addition to a standard communications protocol, whether that's DSRC or something else, we need standards for data architectures and policies for data governance. He points to smart grid development as a good model. In that case, the National Institute of Standards and Technology acted as a coordinator with other standards bodies, helping to speed the standards process along.

Top-down vs. bottom-up innovation

David Heyman, cofounder of Smart City Works, agrees. “In the US, there is very little top-down effort to stimulate market forces to enable cities to get smarter,” he says. In addition to the NIST Global Cities Team Challenge, he points to the USDOT's Smart City Challenge, won by Columbus, Ohio. “That stimulated lot of activity in the transportation space.”

Aside from these two, Heyman sees little top-down effort to stimulate a robust, smart-city technology ecosystem. Noting that some cities on their own have been working with industry and startups on visions and even specific projects, he says that startups have a huge opportunity in the US market. However, the vast majority of those startups fail within their first couple of years.

Smart City Works describes itself as a “business actuator”, that is, an organisation that supports both start-ups and mature companies in bridging their innovation with governmental end users. Heyman points to the policy and financing barriers as sticking points. “Public-sector entities have arcane and cumbersome procurement processes that create market failure in and of themselves,” he notes.

It's difficult for small and innovative tech companies to get into the procurement systems. Even if they get that far, the procurement process is often so long that it doesn't keep up with changing technologies. In addition, governmental procurement systems are weighted toward large, mature legacy companies that have existing contracts and, often, not a lot of incentive to invest in research and development, according to Heyman.

Bigger than transportation

The need for stakeholder engagement is still another complex problem for smart cities, because there are so very many stakeholders. Integrating vehicles requires that technology and data be accessible by a variety of public and private entities, Heyman says. For example, as more vehicles are electrified, there's an opportunity for them to become producers as well as consumers of voltage, for example, via solar roofs. Managing efficiency of the grid then requires integration of infrastructures and data in a way that can be used by not only the power company but also a variety of city departments.

“You have to be able to integrate from the centre to the device level to the system level to the city level. That means pulling together a large ecosystem of partners and interested stakeholders,” he says. However, cities often don't assemble the right stakeholders, or all of them, Berst says. “You need to hear from all the affected people early in the conversation. That gives you earlier warning of the social and policy obstacles you're likely to encounter.”

A community for data

The oneTransport initiative is a public/private consortium with 11 members. It uses the Chordant platform, a smart-city platform designed for several use cases, including a transportation data marketplace. The Chordant platform aims to solve the data integration issue. It's being used in the oneTransport Open Data Marketplace, a cloud promising to provide both the technical platform and a commercial framework that would let a wide variety of entities buy and sell their data. The system has already been deployed in the city of Birmingham and other local authorities in the UK.

“We started this in the UK to create a better solution for local authorities to have more control over their data and to open the data sets to multiple parties interested in building new solutions," says Rafael Cepeda, principal engineer and lead on the oneTransport team.

The Chordant platform is based on the emerging oneM2M global standard for the IoT and machine-to-machine communications. In addition to brokering interactions between data producers and consumers, the platform has APIs to allow developers to create applications, as well as open-source tools for local authorities to create customised dashboards for viewing and managing data.

Cepeda says such a platform could help connected vehicles traveling outside city limits. He notes that inter-urban vehicles might be able to access city data on traffic and road conditions, but once they leave the limits of that municipality, they might not have information about road work or travel times. If multiple entities are contributing data to the platform, the connected vehicle is more likely to be able to access real-time information, as well as predictive information about the next few hours or the next day.

Cepeda sees the companies already providing such services as potential partners, using the platform as another way to profit from their own data and enrich it with more sources. “It will give these systems an edge on predictive information,” he says.

While we're approaching a time when cars will be components of larger urban mobility solutions, Berst says: “We don't know quite how that looks. All affected parties need to be intentional and decide what role they would like to have.”


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