A connected vision

5 mins read

Jamie Hayes, Mobile Network Operators Director at BT Wholesale, talks to Neil Tyler about BT's smart city vision.

“The BT smart city vision means a fully connected city and we’d like to see cities using technology to optimise all that they can whether that’s transport systems of saving electricity,” explains Jamie Hayes, Mobile Network Operators Director at BT Wholesale. “The world is changing rapidly and the public now expects to have connectivity at their fingertips.”

According to Hayes the pressure on city infrastructure to enable ubiquitous coverage and provide the capacity not just for person-to-person communications, but the myriad of new and emerging connectivity use-cases – such as electric vehicles, smart reuse/recycling points and post-box collection – is growing and driving the ‘smart city’ concept.

“Back in 2018, we surveyed local councils and found that the overwhelming driver behind building a smart city was to improve traffic and transport management. Following that, councils are prioritising environmental services, community safety, energy efficiencies, social service improvements, and leisure services.

“We want to be in line with that and are working towards building ‘Smart Streets’, which means gathering insights from environmental monitoring and traffic optimisation sensors that can be easily integrated into ‘street furniture’, such as the next generation of BT Street Hub units.”

For Hayes one of the obvious benefits of the smart city is that it’s a way of fighting climate change.

“Air quality sensors, smart buildings and renewable energy sources will all help reduce negative effects on the environment. Driverless cars based on battery technology, and shared usage, street lighting that is activated only when needed and keeps people safer as a result, will promote sustainability and reduce pollution.”

To be a truly smart city you need a constant stream of information, if the authorities are to be able to make more effective, data-driven decisions, says Hayes, and that will help monitor resources, saving time and money in the long run.

“Given the government’s plans to achieve net-carbon emissions by 2050, UK cities will be focused on sustainability, but after that, each city’s ‘needs’ will be different. The benefit of a smart city is that you can address specific issues efficiently whether that’s forecasting and planning for population expansion or identifying high-risk areas where there needs to be a greater police presence.”

Hayes suggests that the use cases for smart cities are still being worked through and while smart initiatives are generating much excitement, in the real world it will be interesting to see which aspects will actually generate a return on investment.

“Power consumption, cooling and security are the key cases with greatest return currently,” Hayes says.

“Going forward, the ultimate goal is that cities of the future will be more efficient - cleaner, safer and greener. It’s all about being better connected.”

So does Hayes have examples of cities or authorities that are using technology to deliver a smarter experience?

“Sussex Police has consolidated nine separate surveillance systems and control rooms into one digital network. By connecting all public space CCTV cameras to the new network, officers can access any camera in the area from a local terminal without having to drive around the nine former control rooms to get the full picture. This has stopped officers driving more than 180,000 miles, saving time, slashing spending on fuel and maintenance, and cutting CO2 emissions.

“In Leicester and Gloucester free public Wi-Fi is helping to promote economic growth. BT helped them both with the rollout and the feedback was it’s fantastic for people visiting the cities as well as local businesses, students, and shoppers.”

Accelerated rates of transformation

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on all aspects of life but could it help accelerate the trends associated with smart cities?

“Organisations across all industries have changed their working practices in response to COVID-19. We’ve seen a rapid acceleration in terms of digital transformation and years of transformation is now happening in the space of a few months. City councils have been exposed to this increase in digital transformation too, so it wouldn’t be surprising if we see smart city timelines bought forward because we know how quickly we can embrace new technology,” suggests Hayes.

“Smart cities have also been actively helping to control the pandemic. In BT’s global city presences like Seattle and Hong Kong, thermal imaging, body scanners, and infra-red CCTV have all been added to control population risks and to help local governments contain risk of outbreak, as well as understand traffic patterns and usage on an anonymised basis.”

At the heart of a smart city’s management infrastructure is a control centre that’s connected to various digital data sources: video cameras, personal healthcare monitors, traffic flow sensors, fire and intruder alarms, flood and pollution sensors etc., and this allows people running the city to make swift, intelligence-based decisions, helping them respond to what’s going on and to anticipate events before they happen.

“It can be argued that surveillance infrastructure is the foundation of a smart environment, with the camera at its core as the smartest sensor.

“Going forward, 5G technologies will be critical to delivering the smart city concept, providing greater coverage and meeting public demands for higher speeds and greater bandwidth. Small Cells will play a crucial part in supplying high bandwidth and low latency connectivity. To provide seamless coverage and installation of Small Cells, operators and telecom equipment providers need to cooperate with each other in an efficient way and with harmonised management and governance with each other in place to make sure smooth rollout and network operations.”

As with all aspects of life the use of artificial intelligence is growing and smart cities are no different. According to Hayes, AI has the potential to reshape every use case across smart cities.

“From the small, such as, how do we best optimise our public services and empty bins? – to the large, like how do we best shape our cities to improve pedestrian traffic flow and increase usage of our public spaces – the impact of AI will be huge.

“Cities access a wide range of data sources which AI pattern technology can sort in a variety of ways and then use. What’s more, AI technology has the power to greatly reduce human error. If efficiency is the goal of the smart city, AI is the perfect technology, especially as it becomes increasingly advanced.”

One of the worries around smart cities, especially the use of surveillance equipment, is the risk to privacy, so how do you ensure the population buys in to the concept?

“All new paradigm shifts generate barriers to entry, both social, cultural and technological and security is just one such barrier,” argues Hayes. “The fact is, smart cities are just an extension of the use of data that we freely share today. In most use cases, this data is stored and federated, but not integrated into a business eco system. It’s not necessarily about what data is collected, but how it is used.

“Take surveillance for example, it’s the foundation of a smart environment. Used in the wrong way and it’s a huge invasion of privacy, so it has to be respected and the authorities will need to work closely with those delivering the technology ecosystem. It is likely that technology will move faster than legislative controls, and it is the early adopters and resulting outcomes that will shape what society believes is an acceptable line – and therefore inform the laws we are governed by.

“At the end of the day it’ll be use cases that will be the key to adoption. If a technology is useful, has the right commercial model, and is not intrusive, it will be adopted.

“We have seen this with voice control, automated lighting, smart televisions and smart features in our cars. Ultimately, it will be the market need that will drive the adoption curve.”