In concept, smart cities use a network of sensors and devices to make sustainability enhancements across a city or town.
The data collected by the IoT devices can be used to produce useful metrics and control systems for transportation, buildings, energy, utilities, environment, and infrastructure, making all these systems more efficient and intelligent.
A smart city implementation will need to connect all the IoT devices to a control center, which acts as the “brain” for the networks and, by extension, the city. The most crucial activities within a smart city are managed by these control centers.
Real-time analysis of the data fed through the system, along with statistical reports compiled over time will allow better inner city planning, potentially integrating different departments and applications within those departments.
In January, Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Google-sister company Sidewalk Labs and former deputy mayor of New York City, said: “One idea we’ve put forward is adaptive traffic signals that can recognize pedestrians, cyclists, and transit vehicles (in addition to cars) at intersections, helping to improve intersection safety for all users.”
In Denmark, the city of Copenhagen has implemented a similar solution. Traffic lights are backed up by GPS, and traffic flow is regulated according to how many cars are on the road. This ‘GPS-powered’ traffic light also favors cyclists and the Danes say it has decreased overall travel time for motorists by 17 percent.
What Doctoroff did not say, however, is the new wave of hardware deployments required by something as simple as adaptive traffic signals.
Enter the Edge
Edge computing is a distributed and open IT architecture that features decentralized compute power. This enables mobile computation, IoT, and applications such as smart cities.
In Edge computing, data is processed near the source of the data by a local server rather than being transmitted to a traditional data center.
Edge computing should be seen as an extension of the data center industry, delivering resources through more dynamic, miniature counterparts of the conventional data center.
It requires new methods of data storage, secure networking, faster networking, and cooling. This means more investment into the industry as a whole.
Edge computing will require a collaborative effort from specialized sectors such as telecoms to provide the blistering speeds required. Network carriers will provide infrastructure, and data centers will deliver new local storage space for Edge computation and also upload non-real time data to traditional cloud services.
So far no one knows what the sheer scale of the costs in these developments will reach, but we do have some clues.
A report by the White House-backed SmartAmerica group estimates that US city governments will invest approximately $41 trillion over the next 20 years to upgrade their infrastructure to benefit from the IoT.
The main challenge with smart cities and its reliance on the ‘Edge’ will be who is going to operate it. The opportunities for different scales of company will depend crucially on the ecosystem which underpins the new infrastructure.
It’s possible that ecosystems will be deliberately constructed so that small companies can flourish by developing specialisms in processing vast amounts of people’s data. Alternatively, we could hand the figurative ‘keys’ of the city to the likes of Google or Amazon, who already have the capacity to roll out infrastructure like this on a giant scale.
The term ‘hyperscale’ has never before been quite so literal.
Building a city
New York or Copenhagen were never designed to be a “smart city.” They were laid out long before the widespread use of automobiles, phones, and electricity - let alone any digital technology.
Despite what many may think, sometimes it’s easier to just build a whole new city, an approach which is famously being implemented in China.
In the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has created a blueprint of the different approaches.
One method would be for the city authorities to build the infrastructure and own it. This is a traditional approach where a government agency assembles a set of specific requirements - in this case, for an IoT network - and then advertises the competitive contract. As part of the deal, the government offers to pay for the entire cost of construction and installation - provided the government ends up with full ownership of the completed system.
This approach gives lower operating costs, and avoids the application of government network constraints. It should also make it easier to deploy new services.
The trade-off is the high level of public sector investment, including large capital costs, on-going operational costs, and the need for a highly skilled engineering team to operate and maintain the network.
An alternative method is the Corporate Model. For a clear example, we can head to Japan, where car manufacturer Toyota is building the Woven City - a small smart city where the corporation promises to make everyday life automated and intelligent.
At the Consumer Electronics Show 2020 (CES 2020), Toyota showed off its Woven City plans, describing it as a ‘living laboratory’ for the ‘subjects’ who will reside there.
"Building a complete city from the ground up, even on a small scale like this, is a unique opportunity to develop future technologies, including a digital operating system for the city's infrastructure," said Toyota president Akio Toyoda.
"With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test connected AI technology... in both the virtual and the physical realms... maximizing its potential."
Toyota claims the 175-acre city will be built in 2021. The company has also been acquiring technology for autonomous transportation such as the $394 million investment into Joby Aviation, a vertical take off and landing company designing small planes to be used as air taxis.
A smart city is one thing; a 5G smart city opens the door to full automation capabilities, potentially making the promises of projects like Woven City more plausible.
The next generation mobile data technology, 5G, could enable effective smart cities. Synergies between municipal and consumer applications of the technology could ease the rollout and maximize the potential of smart city functions.
Every network carrier is racing to deploy the fastest network for its customers, and there are no signs of that slowing down. Data centers can capitalize on the data explosion this will bring, and smart cities will come to rely on the capabilities that 5G promises.
Networks with 5G functions can deliver lower latency (faster local data) and will have lower energy consumption compared to today’s infrastructure. This correlates well with the goals of the data center industry, making a win-win relationship for both industries.
“All those 5G antennas that will soon provide super-fast connections will also have to be connected to fiber optic cables below the ground,” said Petra Claessen, director of BTG, a group of large telecoms customers based in the Netherlands.
Speaking at the Smart City Congress in Barcelona in late 2019, she went on: “In order to avoid having to break open the sidewalk three times in the future, a law must be quickly put in place to ensure that the mobile network operators will share their infrastructure.”
Combining the Edge with the cloud
Edge devices have limited power constraints, as they need a very long battery life, because their sheer number requires them to work unattended in order to make economic sense.
On the other hand, the cloud has access to virtually unlimited electricity in its central locations, but has massive power efficiency granted it by the economies of scale.
The objective of Edge computing is to combine these two in real-time and provide a great user experience, while supporting new mega-applications such as smart cities.
For this reason, Edge computing data centers and hyperscale data centers will coexist rather than replace one another. Depending on the use case, the two data center archetypes will be blended to meet the necessary requirements.
Smart cities will have to utilize a variety of technologies to build the next generation metropolitan utopia.