The internet of things is linking cities closer together, but what approach is best?
The US Department of Transportation (DoT) has announced a new funding round for smart city projects worth $165 million that will award solutions to reduce traffic congestion and better integrate alternative public transit and ride-sharing systems.
While full smart city conversion is decades off, smaller projects have produced real savings and models for further expansion. Pittsburgh, where the Department of Transportation made the announcement, is for instance getting $10.9 million on smart traffic lights with the new US government grants. These signals have been in use throughout the city for several times. In 2015, the Allegheny Front reported on this technology, an adaptive system where, “a computer algorithm essentially figures out how long to leave the green lights green and the red lights red in order to maximize traffic flow in all directions.”
Each intersection costs about $20,000 to install, and they all communicate with each across the system to do so – effectively, they make their own traffic plans as they go. According to the designers, while a lot of modeling work remains to be done for city-wide implementation, the system has reduced travel times by a quarter and cut back on vehicle emissions by a fifth.
Pittsburgh also hosts Uber’s self-driving taxis, which would one day benefit from the smart traffic grid.
The citywide internet of things
The DoT’s announcement follows last year’s notification that $160 million would be made available for smart city research projects, with a special focus on “connected devices, smart sensors, and big data analytics” – that is, on the “internet of things” architecture necessary to link all of these functions together to build usable apps and model municipal data.
Such architecture will, first and foremost, require 5G wireless technology, “tens of thousands of antennas for each carrier into your cities with fiber connections,” according to the Wireless Infrastructure Association. Without that connectively, rollout will only ever be a piecemeal process. Indeed, in India, the city of Nagpur will need to lay down 1,200 kilometers of fiber optic cables for 136 hotspots, and then use this to support a comprehensive municipal management network, Cisco’s City Digital Platform.
Singapore’s CIO Chan Cheow Hoe recently discussed these issues in a Q&A with readwrite.com, speaking on the need for “humanized” technology to convince the public that the systems will benefit them, and the difficulty of managing funds. “If you expect every agency to fund it themselves, these projects will take five years to do,” Chan told the website.
Even in China, where there are almost 200 smart city projects, scaling these up will take time. The city of Yinchuan, for example, hosts many smart city technologies already, ranging across medicine, commuting, shopping, and waste disposal sectors. But Yinchuan is a relatively small urban area compared to other municipalities, and has a lot of empty building space for planners to work with.
Cities like Beijing (or New York and Tel Aviv) will not lend themselves to that approach given the age of their infrastructure and limitations on construction. Cyber security is also a major challenge for smart city development. With so much data flowing around the networks, criminals will try to vacuum it up, or worse, sabotage key systems.
Chan noted that having a central database for “citizen-reported problems” ( or OneService) has been helpful in addressing problems that arise from trying to introduce technologies to almost totally built-over areas. The city-state’s application program interface (API) database further aims to overcome the problem of building atop legacy systems, which is cheaper in the short-term but will cause compatibility problems in the future, and make system-wide integration difficult.