Cities of tomorrow

4 mins read

Damien Stephens, Associate Vice President, Mobility & IoT, Tata Communications talks to Neil Tyler about the benefits of smart cities and the challenges created by COVID-19.

As we enter a new era of global connectivity, with technologies such as 5G creating an explosion of more advanced IoT technologies, cities are set to be transformed into smart metropolises; with autonomous vehicles, remote surveillance, and increasing interactions across different IoT endpoints creating an intelligent urban environment that improves citizen’s quality of life.

According to Damien Stephens, this improved connectivity will also pave the way for artificial intelligence and machine learning to become much more widespread and commonplace in city infrastructure.

In this interview we discuss some of the key trends associated with the smart city concept; from how urban cities will effectively support the basic needs of ever-growing populations to how they will ensure sustainable opportunities, growth, and resources for everyone.

However, we started with a look at how COVID-19 has impacted the smart city concept.

Q1: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the concept of the smart city - has it, will it, accelerate the trends that we have been seeing?

The pandemic has given the much required boost to connected technologies. Along with collaboration solutions that enable remote operations, sensors and IoT-enabled devices are playing a key role in ensuring minimal human-touch during current times.

However, a few elements of a smart city have been impacted. COVID-19 has had and will continue to have a significant short-term negative impact on the development of shared mobility services such as ride-hailing solutions.

Digital technologies have, however, begun creating solutions to the challenges that public transport faces due to COVID-19. For instance, with smart technologies public transport providers can monitor how crowded services are, and suggest alternate routes for commuters looking to avoid busy services. IoT and connectivity will play a crucial role in reassuring citizens that public transport is safe to use.

Aside from shared mobility and integrated transport services, there are other factors associated with COVID-19. The ability to monitor, maintain, and update equipment remotely, for example, has become more important, as in some case companies do not want to deploy their engineers to attend remote sites.

This turn to a remote service model to reduce human-human contact will most likely also be seen in the key use cases of public safety and emergency response, traffic management, smart lighting, parking, and waste management along with preventive and remote health and smart utility.

Q2: Will we see a different approach to smart cities, as a result of the pandemic?

It’s possible that the very nature of what is a city may change in the long term. With the majority of offices now working remotely, there has been a considerable change in attitude toward not only the need to maintain significant and expensive office space in the centre of a city, but also toward the technologies which enable people and businesses to operate remotely.

The pandemic is certainly changing how we work. We have seen how collaboration platforms and tools can create a similar sense of closeness that an office once provided. They allow teams to effectively communicate, share and work – without the need to spend a significant portion of time commuting to a central location.

With the benefits of less commuting and travel time clear to see, smart cities might need to take variable commuting, resource utilisation, and variable heating and lighting requirements into consideration.

In turn, all of this calls for smarter electronics to automate, monitor, and manage the type of services that are part and parcel of a city under normal circumstances, as the new normal emerges, post Covid-19.

Q3: What infrastructure is required to deliver the connectivity that's needed to support the smart city?

When it comes to delivering greater connectivity, one of the biggest barriers that many cities face in the west is that many services are comprised of a mixture of old and modern infrastructure.

Most cities already have significant communications network access capability, so the challenge is how to marry the existing infrastructure with applications and devices to help monitor and manage the core concepts of smart cities. Solutions for traffic, security, pollution, congestion all use a mix of applications and electronic devices that can themselves be managed, monitored, and maintained easily, preferably remotely.

Tata believes that cellular technology should work in conjunction with other connectivity options, including LP-WAN and Wi-Fi, to deliver the multi-bearer connectivity requirements needed to manage the transportation infrastructure in conjunction with smart city projects and infrastructure service companies.

From an ecosystem orchestration perspective, the question is whether the various parties can operate in silos or whether a tighter form of integration and orchestration is required. This might include additional degrees of commercial integration – think toll roads or parking for example, which are often managed as private sector enterprises, but need to be part of a broader public sector response to smart city projects.

In terms of the way that smart city applications and device connectivity is provided, whether via cellular, LP-WAN, or Wi-Fi, the need for more integration will require the use of devices that are capable of multi bearer connectivity, so design considerations that enable this trend to become more important.

Going forward designs must focus more on embedded connectivity, enabled by eSIM and iSIM developments in the case of cellular technology.

Q4: How will data be collected and then used?

Data will be collected through thousands of touchpoints that citizens come into contact with every day, from smart parking meters and electric meters to water usage services and office space management. Each IoT device integrated into a smart city will collect data which will inform usage and help optimise services for citizens.

If analysed regularly and accurately, data could offer insights on your city’s strengths and weaknesses to facilitate informed decision making that can help create a balanced city system.

Cities may deploy intelligent, data-driven solutions to address everyday challenges, thereby benefiting the environment, people, and ultimately, economy.

For instance, insights from real-time crime mapping can help in identifying high crime-prone zones in the city and such data can be immensely helpful during crises by providing equitable resource distribution for problem-solving. Data can be used to identify patterns and then break them.

Q5: Finally, what will be the benefits to ordinary citizens from the implementation of smart cities?

One of the key benefits to citizens will be the leveraging of data to create safer, more sustainable societies by using predictive analytics to unlock hidden patterns. Imagine if we could forecast how traffic on a street is impacted due to a monsoon or how rescheduling the sequence of traffic signals by a few seconds could reduce the number of cars in traffic, resulting in less pollution.

These benefits are already seen and felt across the world; for example, Los Angeles is using data to maintain clean streets, water management, assess and enhance diversity in police recruits, increase participation in sports, and many other such initiatives.

Elsewhere, Barcelona has installed smart irrigation systems across parks and gardens to gauge humidity levels underground and effectively assess water requirements. This exercise has saved over 600,000 litres of water annually, saving citizens money and reducing water shortages.