Smart Cities: Evolution or Inevitable?

Wiren Perera, IoT Strategy
ON Semiconductor

The percentage of human beings living in cities has increased substantially in the last few decades and this is destined to continue at a relentless pace. In 1800, only 3-4 percent of the population was urban dwelling, but by 1950, this had ramped up to around 30 percent. According to projections made by the United Nations and World Health Organization, it is predicted that by the year 2050, this figure will have more than doubled, reaching 66 percent, while rural populations continue to decline. Between now and the end of that time period, India will have added a staggering 400 million to its total urban populace and China will have close to another 300 million.

The higher population densities now being envisaged will put considerable strain on what are already limited available resources (water, energy, food, sanitation, etc.), as well as causing more intense traffic congestion on roads and placing greater demands on communication networks. They will also impact the local environment (with air, water and noise pollution needing to be factored in). All this poses serious challenges for municipal governance, utility companies and numerous other service providers. The resulting problems are certain to be most acute in what are referred to as mega-cities. These are places where there are more than 10 million citizens. Currently there are 28 recognized mega-cities around the globe (Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paolo being the largest) and there are 10 more that are expected to qualify for this list by the year 2030 (Johannesburg, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City being among these).

The application of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, now becomes inevitable and essential as opposed to simply driving improved life and work styles. The hope is that modern society will be able to deal with the multitude of issues that urban inhabitants are already facing, which will doubtless be further exacerbated as cities continue to expand. Access to a variety of data, continuously monitored and/or acquired by cloud-connected sensors located within the metropolitan vicinity, will be the savior. An array of different services and functions can be offered – some being totally new, others being improvements on existing ones. These will enable the cities of the future to cope with the huge numbers of people that reside there, while still addressing peoples deep-rooted aspirations for a better quality of life.

Smart Cities Emerge
The development of what have been termed as smart cities will be categorized into two different types of activity. There will be entirely new settlements built from the ground up. Examples of this can already be seen in India (Dholera), South Korea (Songdo), the United Arab Emirates (Masdar) and China (Meixi), where ambitious large-scale projects are either already well underway or close to reaching completion. The other will be to add smart capabilities to established cities.

Newly founded smart cities will be much easier to make headway with, since it is possible to deploy the necessary technology from scratch and the whole way they are planned out will facilitate the implementation process. Also, much of the technology can be incorporated before these cities even have residents. Though they will serve as a way to showcase the advances being made in technology, these cities are only going to constitute a very small proportion of the worlds metropolitan inhabitants.

Figure 1: Supplementing of Existing Communication Infrastructure with Additional Elements

Figure 1: Supplementing of Existing Communication Infrastructure with Additional Elements

It simply isn’t realistic to displace the vast numbers of people whose families have occupied cities, like New York, London or Manila, and for many generations, the upheaval would be too great. So, if we are to witness a widespread adoption of smart technology in an urban context, the vast majority of activity will need to take place in large, longstanding cities. Unfortunately, the challenge will be far greater in these locations. Here legacy infrastructure will need to be taken into account. Old and new technologies, initially at least, will consequently need to work alongside each other – and this is certain to be a source of major concerns in relation to integration and interoperability.

So despite the fact that these are probably places that will gain the most from smart technology, it will of course take considerably longer for bigger, older cities to fully exploit it. In many cases, they will learn from what has been done in the newer, smaller scale operations. Even then it is likely to subsequently be applied in a piecemeal fashion, with certain districts being targeted to get attention first and others following later. This in itself could prove problematic, potentially leading to a greater digital divide between the haves and have nots.

Practicalities of IoT Implementation in Smart Cities
The roll out of new IoT-based hardware needs to be done in a cost-effective manner both from an operational and infrastructure standpoint. For example, use of wireless communication will make things a lot easier to achieve than following a wireline approach, where the inconvenience and expense of laying cables needs to be taken into consideration. However, there may also be questions raised about reliability, and this could call for redundancy to be built into the system (to some extent hiking up the cost involved but likely still providing significant savings).

The first applications that will constitute the progression towards smart cities are already happening, such as smart metering – which is now becoming quite prevalent in many Western economies. Increasing pervasiveness of home and building automation is likely to represent the next phase. From there additional functions will start to transpire – such as the monitoring of water usage for agricultural and domestic use (so that the cities reserves are allocated correctly) and smart lighting (where the time of day and time of year will permit adjustment as to when locations are illuminated). Furthermore, IoT sensor nodes could be employed for preventative maintenance purposes – to check temperature profiles, stress levels or the build-up of mold, in bridges, buildings, highways, etc. They could also ensure better care of the elderly and infirmed – giving information on availability of hospital beds throughout the entire city, or where equipment needed for a particular treatment is at any given time. There are boundless possibilities for it. The question is – in what timeframe will these things actually happen?

Some aspects that were expected to have been embraced several years back have not yet come into fruition. Having received a lot of media interest, there was an assumption that electricity distribution through smart grid technology would have experienced a sizeable uptake by now, but as of yet, it is only present in a very limited number of areas. The large financial outlay associated with this has seemingly hindered progress. Political forces might therefore be needed to drive the advancement of IoT in some sectors – either by setting legislative guidelines that will give a well-defined roadmap for municipalities to follow or alternatively by offering attractive incentives to encourage innovation (such as tax breaks etc.), much in the way that was done to promote the installation of photovoltaics.

In some cases, the actions of commercial companies, rather than municipalities or utilities, will bring us closer to the eventual objective of more technologically advanced cities. Smart parking systems that allow commuters to find places to leave their cars are a good example of this. With clear opportunities to generate revenue, these kind of applications could be responsible for pushing the smart city agenda forward.

Capturing & Analyzing Data
Critical to any IoT implementation will be the ability to acquire meaningful data from the surrounding environment. Lets go back to our smart lighting example. Here the light measured by photodiodes along with information on local weather conditions could be used to ascertain when street lights in a given area should be turned on or off. By including PIR sensors in the system, further dimensions might be added – thereby allowing direct response to periods of inactivity on that street (so lights could be turned off to save energy when they were not needed).

Nearly all industry experts agree that sensor fusion will have a vital role to play. Once the time and effort has been expended installing sensors in particular places, it is better to have multiple devices there so that different functions to be catered for (even if some of these functions are not going to be utilized straight away). This avoids having to carry out additional installations at a later stage, which will accrue greater costs. Admittedly it will call for a heavier initial capital spend, but in the longer term it will justify the investment made based on savings in labor costs for upgrades and of course the benefits and savings from the additional services.

There are also likely to be opportunities for the sharing, analyzing and cross pollination of the data sourced from different sensors. For instance, images taken by road authority cameras for traffic monitoring could be of value for surveillance/security tasks. Furthermore, there is the prospect of machine learning – with systems not just collecting data, but developing intelligence over time. Profiles could be compiled to make services more efficient. Take apartment complexes here a management company could utilize the data acquired at different sites and start applying better practices based on this across the board. Such methods could potentially be used to accelerate the responsiveness of emergency services too.

Versatility and cost effectiveness are set to be the foundations upon which the IoT solutions that will empower smart city development in the coming years will be reliant. Semiconductor vendors thus need to be able to offer the fundamental building blocks to support this – with high performance, energy efficient devices that cover a broad array of different sensor functions and are backed by superior connectivity.

Perera, Wiren HRESAbout the Author – Wiren Perera, Ph.D,Senior Director, IoT Strategy
ON Semiconductor -
Wiren Perera is responsible for IoT strategy and business development at ON Semiconductor. A primary area of focus is the delivery of leadership platform solutions to enable the provisioning of scalable, cloud-based services. He is a senior executive, with a proven track record, managing high-technology businesses from inception to $300MM+ at public and private corporations. Previously, he was vice president of the LAN Solutions business and corporate strategy at Micrel. At Micrel, Perera established leadership positions in automotive networking for ADAS and infotainment, deterministic networks for industrial M2M automation, and unified communications and smart home solutions for IoT. His prior experience includes spearheading the optical communications business at JDSU and the data communications business at PMC-Sierra. He was also an executive at several successful venture-financed companies, including Stream Machine, a pioneer in digital living room video solutions, and the principal of a firm providing strategic and business direction for technology companies. Perera holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

Comments are closed.