‘Things’ are coming together for smart cities

The Internet of Things and artificial intelligence are key technologies for building smart cities, but so too are emerging business models that can handle – and make sense of – the massive amounts of data being produced by municipal applications.


From drones that will check on an ailing parent to wearables for police officers, cities are going to look a whole lot different in the not-so-distant future.

There are already more than 100 smart cities worldwide ­– the idea being that IoT can make municipalities more efficient, collect data for improved decision-making and hopefully save some tax dollars along the way.

And while IoT can be harnessed for such purposes, “an equally interesting goal is to use these technologies to enhance the citizen experience,” according to a report on smart cities by Georgia Tech released last month.

“This is one of the most innovative approaches to ensuring the effective and efficient uptake of IoT – devising novel ways to provide meaningful and rewarding citizen engagement,” says the report.

Georgia Tech outlines three new business models that have developed around IoT: digitally charged products, sensors-as-a-service and platform marketplaces.

Digitally charged products link digital services with physical devices, such as the ability of shared city bicycles to monitor their own air pressure or a smart ‘thing’ to independently order a new part.

In the sensor-as-a-service model, the data itself is collected, processed and sold for a fee to third parties – say, a municipality uses sensors to monitor parking spaces and then provides the data to a consumer mobile parking app.

This is a win-win for both the public and private sectors, as well as the consumer. “City governments benefit since the real-time nature of the data identifies parking offenders without the traditional labor and time-intensive activities; moreover, utilization of parking places increases, and therefore so does revenue, since parking tenants can set up automatic payments to expired meters,” says the report.

Then there are platform marketplaces, which flip the traditional distribution channel on its head. It’s what Georgia Tech calls a “creation infrastructure,” where the platform creates value using resources it doesn’t own. Los Angeles, for example, claims its data platform has helped open 34,000 new businesses.

These IoT business models can be applied to a vast number of use cases, from municipal services management to utilities, public safety, transit and healthcare – and applications are only limited by the imagination.

Like the use of civilian drones, which “have been used to save at least 59 people in 18 different incidents around the world since 2013,” says the report. And the Telecare service in Barcelona that “looks after more than 70,000 elderly and disabled citizens by proactively checking on them using sensors.”

These are applications that can have a profound impact on our quality of life – and it doesn’t hurt that they make municipalities more efficient and cost-effective.

According to IDC, the three largest use cases – which will attract nearly one-quarter of global spending on smart cities this year – are fixed visual surveillance, advanced public transit and smart outdoor lighting.

“By 2022, intelligent traffic management will overcome smart outdoor lighting in third position, and the top three use cases will only account for one-fifth of total spending, as smaller and fast-growing use cases emerge and reach critical mass,” says the IDC report.

“Officer wearables and vehicle to everything (V2X) connectivity, in particular, will generate the fastest growth, although they currently start from a small base in most regions.”

A smart city initiative, to be truly successful, must be built on an infrastructure that can scale – that can handle any volume and data rate, as well as the needs of any vertical. To do this, the Georgia Tech report says that “it must be able to navigate through different communication protocols and allow the integration of various information networks, e.g., cellular, WiFi, and satellite in the case of tracking services.”

This will be backed by artificial intelligence – without AI, it will be near impossible to make sense of the massive amounts of data that will be collected through sensors and other IoT devices.

Clearly, we have a long way to go. There are still unanswered questions (like how to best deal with security and privacy. What’s most important to keep in mind, however, is how these applications are providing value to citizens – because success will ultimately be measured by their engagement and participation.

Image: ivanastar/iStock

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