Building smarter cities vital for governments

Technology is important when considering smart city initiatives, but far more critical is including stakeholders in the conversation about how to design one.

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Downtown parking is a headache that plagues cities and drivers alike. In Halifax, street parking is at a minimum, and if you’re lucky enough to find a spot you still need to feed the meter with old-fashioned cash.

Larger cities in Canada and around the world have taken the pain out of parking by automating the payment process via smartphones. In Montreal, for example, the P$ service allows customers to pay for parking via an app on their smartphone. It even sends a text reminder 15 minutes before your parking time is up, so you can top up the payment and avoid a ticket.

In major metropolitan areas and smaller cities alike, governments are turning to smart technologies — cloud, high-speed optical networks, Internet of Things (IoT), software-defined networks (SDN) and network function Virtualization (NFV) — in their quest to manage strained infrastructures with limited budgets.

The global market for smart cities is booming. According to industry researcher Frost and Sullivan, it’s expected to reach US$1.5 trillion by 2020. The investment signals governments’ urgency to enhance the livability of their communities, according to Dan Pitt, executive director of Open Networking Foundation.

“The overarching theme for smart city projects is ‘how do we use these new technologies to benefit the lives of everyone in the community, not just the digital know-it-alls?’”

As an important building block in smart cities, SDN enables a flexible infrastructure that can be dynamically programmed to serve different application types. Like the human brain’s neural pathways, SDN and NFV are essential in making the smart city and its networks connect and talk to each other in a meaningful way, explains government advisor Daniele Loffreda in a recent Network World article.

“It makes the network applications portable and upgradable with software, and it allows cities of all sizes the agility and scalability to tackle the needs and trends of the future as they arise.”

Traffic congestion is one of many issues governments are working to solve with smart technology. In the United Kingdom, for example, the city of Bristol is looking at how big data can be used to crack common problems such as air pollution, traffic congestion and assisted living for the elderly.

It’s still early days in the smart city revolution, however, and there are lots of technical hurdles, including lack of interoperability among products. But the greater challenges, suggests Pitt, are around ownership, funding, sustainable models and the role for various stakeholders, including citizens and vendors.

“Some cities are entirely based on a single vendor’s product line and they’re really expensive options. But I’ve also seen some with a lot of open solutions and a lot of opportunity for vendor competition. Bristol has done a better job than most of including a non-technical community in the development of applications and uses.”

The point is, says Pitt, that IT pros in municipalities need to start thinking about what kind of applications are right for their particular residents. If not, they risk being saddled with an expensive and inflexible infrastructure that doesn’t serve the needs of the population. Worse still, he says, it might affect their competitiveness in attracting and retaining people.

“People, especially the younger and more mobile population, will be more inclined to move to places that have a liveliness to them based on what they can do interacting with their fellow residents.”

Graphic: Mark Glucki

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