Smart Cities That ‘Talk’

Smart Cities That ‘Talk’

October 2020:

Smart Cities That ‘Talk’

Cities have a lot to say, and the IoT can help unleash their potential.

In the future, smart cities will “talk,” but what will they “say?” Will what they say infringe on citizens’ privacy? Will what they say help prevent future pandemics? Tomorrow’s connected cities will use the IoT (Internet of Things) technologies to analyze information and make better, quicker decisions. With IoT devices connected to all aspects of a city’s infrastructure, a smart city will be able identify emerging incidents, notify the appropriate personnel, and then activate various smart systems within the infrastructure to react and mitigate the impending situation—e.g., changing traffic lights to clear the way for first responders as they make their way to the scene of a crime or traffic accident.

When cities talk, what they say could make life better for their citizens. McKinsey Global Institute says cities could use smart technologies and solutions to improve some quality-of-life indicators by up to 30%. When cities talk, it’ll also improve operations for their governments. McKinsey points out that smart cities add digital intelligence to existing urban systems, which makes it possible to do more with less. Realtime data gleaned from connected systems can put decision-enhancing information in front of the right people at the right time, creating opportunities for things like reduced energy use and potentially even saving lives by reducing crime, improving first response, and mitigating health crises, including future pandemics.

Cities Have a Lot to Say

Brandon Branham, CTO and assistant city manager of Peachtree Corners and the Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, says there will be different ways future smart cities talk. “One form will revolve around how data collected from end-point devices is consolidated to ‘say’ what is really happening inside a smart city,” Branham explains. “Up until this point, cities have deployed a vast array of smart devices, but we are just now seeing the outcomes of all these connected devices and that data. These individual devices all have a message to share, but how we use and analyze that mass amount of information to make transformational decisions is how we will ‘talk’ in future smart-city environments.”

Smart cities will also communicate with residents and businesses. “Communication to our residents and businesses is key in a healthy and sustainable smart city,” Branham says. “I believe we will see smart technology transform from communicating only to the city to directly communicating with the end user. For example, when smart cameras and Wi-Fi access points pick up large gatherings, instant messages will be distributed through city apps to residents to let them know about the gathering. This, in turn, will communicate to the traffic signals so they may adjust for the resulting influx of vehicles.”

The City of Peachtree Corners, Ga., is already on this path. It’s one of North America’s only real-world smart-city environments, where top technology companies from all around the world are testing, developing, and making decisions on emerging IoT and connected technologies for the smart-city landscapes of the future. At the center of these efforts is a living laboratory called Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, which was designed specifically as a proving ground for technology that has graduated from a closed laboratory environment. For instance, there’s a 5G-enabled AV (autonomous vehicle) test track. Through its efforts, Branham says Peachtree Corners is serving as a model for how the private sector and government entities can work together to make smart-city dreams a reality.

Looking to the future of his own city, Jason JonMichael, assistant director of smart mobility for the Austin Transportation Dept., hopes the IoT continues to make Austin and its residents safer, sustains what makes the city unique while experiencing unprecedented growth, and continues to deliver equitable outcomes and create trust. He says future smart cities will talk a lot, and, hopefully, a lot of people and systems will be listening. “What they say and how they interact will determine our success,” he adds.

Speaking specifically to smart mobility systems within smart cities, JonMichael says: “The level of interactivity between infrastructure and people will continue to increase; we have to be cognizant of how that could create ‘smart-city noise’. It’s not only what we say, but also how we say it. Language should never be a barrier. Information must be meaningful, culturally appropriate for all. All people should feel comfortable and safe when interacting with smart mobility. These are some of the characteristics that make something ‘smart’ in our definition of ‘what is a smart city’.”

“The integration of technology into city operations and policymaking is a key focus for many cities. Cities are using data effectively to understand the impact on transportation and the overall health of their city. We are only just beginning to take advantage of the power of information and communication technologies.”

Jane Macfarlane, University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies

Another key consideration, JonMichael says, is making sure future infrastructure talks with us and not just at us. “This dialogue will be determined by how we interact with everyone in the mobility system, disseminate information, and drive human behavior change at an individual level. As an industry, transportation has never had an opportunity to holistically affect human behavior at scale,” he explains. “TDM (travel-demand management) is the science and practice of implementing strategies of human behavior change to create more balance in the system and reduce morning and afternoon rush-hour demands—like carpooling, taking transit, or other non-drive-alone options. Integrating TDM with technology, such as IoT, public-sector edge computing, mobile technologies, connected/automated vehicles, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), and other AI (artificial intelligence) will allow travelers to have personalized services that meet their needs while also balancing the demands on the mobility system throughout the day. Such a system could help each of us be more spatially and temporally aware of our decisions and our impact on the mobility system.”

In other words, the integration of various smart technologies could help create a sort of dialogue with citizens that actually drives changes in human behavior. “The systems will talk to each other too. Automation and machine learning allow a new level of machine-to-machine communication,” JonMichael continues. “I foresee new solutions in the future—some for those with accessibility needs in the mobility system. Imagine a smart wheelchair that can communicate with infrastructure, vehicles, and other mobility users to provide a more equitable mobility system for each person’s unique needs.”

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Facing Challenges for a Smart Future

Jane Macfarlane, executive director of smart cities at the University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, also provides a transportation-specific angle. “The integration of technology into city operations and policymaking is a key focus for many cities,” she says. “Cities are using data effectively to understand the impact on transportation and the overall health of their city. We are only just beginning to take advantage of the power of information and communication technologies.”

Source: Postscapes Smart City Infographics

With this opportunity comes challenges, such as the management of data. As data collection becomes easier and its potential becomes more known, the reality remains that most smart-city data is redundant and not very interesting. Data must be collected, stored, and distributed—not to mention analyzed—in order for it to be as useful as it could be. Macfarlane also points out that future cities will sense much more than they do today, and one challenge will be figuring out how to do this without revealing personal information.

“One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is how to use mobility data without revealing PII (personally identifiable information),” she explains. “As an emerging field, data science at scale, including AI and machine learning, is rapidly changing. The value chain that takes data from a heterogeneous collection of mobile devices to collective information is being addressed by both public and private organizations. There will be significant changes in the devices themselves and the large-scale data analytics necessary to manage the data.”

George Thomas, partner at New Urbana, says in the past decade and a half, the IoT has given cities a better mechanism to capture data at the source. “This allows for massive amounts of historical and realtime performance data that can then be used for data-driven analytics and better decisions—and, therefore, drives clear, definable, and measurable ways to optimize usage, planning, design, build, and performance,” Thomas says. “IoT-based solutions are changing industries and realigning markets. This is especially evident in today’s urban centers that are by nature multi-domain, multi-industry, and multi-jurisdiction.”

Source: Postscapes Smart City Infographics

However, many challenges prevent the adoption of new technologies, especially into government and infrastructure agencies. Even so, Thomas says efforts that make smart-city projects more bankable, allowing private funds to extend the public purse will move the needle in the near future. “The significant gap in the triangle of project success—misalignment of ROI (return on investment) between buyers, funding, and solutions—is especially valid for smart-city solutions and technologies,” he adds. “Typically, the funding sources are not aligned to the buyers’ and citizens’ needs, and solution developers and innovators have difficulty in accessing both the funders and the buyers. These gaps are sometimes addressed by significant funding projects globally, such as the smart-city initiatives in China and India. While such national-level efforts have been lacking in the U.S., cities and regional jurisdictions are filling the gap through public-private partnerships, such as Connected DMV, covering the 24 regional governments of greater Washington D.C., and other innovative mechanisms to help close the project-success triangle.

Robert Mazer, founder of Smart City Works, a nonprofit business accelerator on a mission to change the way cities are designed, built, and occupied, says while there are several difficult challenges that must be overcome if smart-city technology is going to proliferate, the most difficult challenge is financing. “While smart-city technology will improve the way we live, work, and play, financial resources must be identified that will enable the implementation and operation of these technologies,” Mazer says. “Whether funding comes from a municipal budget, public-private partnership, municipal bonds, or future revenues, a financial model and ROI must be developed and aligned. Additionally, complicated and challenging procurement structures must be changed to enable new companies with new technologies to succeed.

  • 5 Privacy-Related Questions for Future Smart Cities

    1. How can privacy issues in mobile data be mitigated?
    2. How can data be democratized without revealing confidential business intellectual property?
    3. Can mobile data be used to provide realtime control of infrastructure to mitigate congestion, improve transportation impacts on quality of life, and boost economic growth?
    4. If data is used for infrastructure control, what are the cybersecurity risks associated with it?
    5. How can the next-generation data value chain be designed for cross-agency and public-private partnerships?

Finally, local governments need to develop the ability to identify, procure, implement, and operate new solutions (to) age-old problems.”

Post-COVID-19 Cities 

Perry Yang, associate professor and director of the Eco Urban Lab at Georgia Tech, says one of the most pressing questions urban centers must ask right now is how the U.S. can redefine, redesign, and rebuild its communities to be more resilient to pandemics. “Some values behind how pre-COVID-19 cities and communities were designed are now problematic,” Yang says. “For example, urban centers gather high-density population. Density and gathering are now seen as an enemy to conquer COVID-19. Should we continue to advocate compact city form against suburban sprawl or the vibrant city living against social segregation when proximity and intimacy of social relationship is now causing immediate danger in pandemics? When the segregation and social distancing is a new norm, how will the proximity and interactions among diverse social groups still function for community building?”

Source: Postscapes Smart City Infographics

How might the IoT address these questions? Is the increasing ability to handle how massive amounts of data are captured, analyzed, and applied in cities part of the solution? Probably. “In new urban centers, our ability to handle massive and realtime big data and the smart-city data analytics that we are developing should be applied for making nimble decisions and situational responses when (a) new COVID-20 or COVID-21 comes again,” Yang says. “When disasters of many kinds, including COVID-19, are giving cities unpredictable shocks in more frequent ways, urban centers need reconfiguration and radical transformation.”

Peachtree’s Branham adds that because of COVID-19, cities of all sizes have been doing their best to quickly adapt their operations to run “smart.” “’Smart’ means different things to different organizations and regions, but every city is testing the limits of their capabilities during these challenging times,” Branham says. “Some of the trends we are seeing, I believe, will shape the future of what we consider to be smart cities in the U.S.—the first being how we communicate with our residents. We are seeing everything from cities transitioning from using standard messaging to now using newer social media platforms such as TikTok, which would have been unheard of even just two years ago. We are also starting to see trends with cities using their smart connected technology to monitor crowds and send personnel to request that crowds disperse.”

UC Berkeley’s Macfarlane concludes by saying the COVID-19 pandemic will create significant changes for future cities and other urban centers. “I think the biggest question is how best to open back up,” she says. “How can we use technology and data to manage the opening up of cities?” While this and many other questions remain unanswered, it seems one positive stemming from the COVID-19 crisis has been new types of collaboration within the smart-city ecosystem, which could and should become the new norm for smart cities in the post-COVID-19 future.


Peggy and Michael Walton, industry solution executive, manufacturing industry, Microsoft, examine the differences between the generations—particularly millennial and Gen Z—and how they are impacting the manufacturing industry.

Read past articles or listen to poast podcasts related to First Responders

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