Why do cities need a smart platform?

A centralised Smart City Platform can be the heart of municipal smart initiatives, write Yousef Khalili and Andrew Rippon of neXgen

Tags: Smart citiesUnited Arab EmiratesneXgen Group (www.nxn.ae/)
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Why do cities need a smart platform? Comprehensive central smart platforms can provide many benefits to cities, says Khalili.
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By  Yousef khalili and Andrew Rippon Published  July 26, 2016

Smart City is a concept that has been gaining strength over the last few years and concerns the improvement of lives and business environments through the use of technology.

However, it is not just about mobile apps and online services, although these form an important element. The strength of Smart Cities comes from the digital enablers put in place in the background, covering multiple services or use cases. These can range from Smart Building management systems to Smart Parking and on to Electronic Health Records management systems.

The full range of Smart City services or initiatives is encapsulated in seven areas of focus which include ICT, Governance, Mobility, Economy, Living, Environment and People. Different cities around the world are putting emphasis on the dimensions that most fit their overall strategy. In Dubai, for example, the emphasis is on Smart Economy and Smart Living, with the other dimensions in support. Other cities, such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, have put more emphasis on Smart Mobility and Smart Environment.

The power behind all these initiatives is the Smart ICT. This contains all the infrastructure elements that sit quietly in the background providing our modern world, such as fibre networks and data centres. However, it also contains the one element that many cities have yet to establish in a comprehensive way, the Smart City Platform. This wide-ranging data platform provides a central point to aggregate data and functionality from many siloed city systems. In order to set it up, therefore, a city needs a clear blueprint for its city-wide architecture. This blueprint will be based on the evolving standards, such as the definitions created by the UN’s ITU study group on smart cities, but will vary by city, based on many factors such as its legacy systems and strategic goals.

While designing the Smart City Platform, the city’s stakeholders need to be involved. These are the ultimate users of the platform who will create new outcomes which improve the lives of residents and the economic environment for companies. Stakeholders include city managers from various entities, of course, but range in role from planners to department operators to city leaders and on to the non-government world to real estate developers, enterprises, SMEs and residents themselves.

Benefits of the Smart City platform

In simple terms, cities can do what they do today more efficiently and do new things that were not possible before the existence of the platform. To dig a little deeper, we can split the benefits into seven main areas:

Efficiency — the Smart City Platform brings the ability to make governments more efficient in their growing need for technology systems. It provides a private or hybrid cloud environment where any number of government systems can be hosted and improves timelines to providing services. Cities need no longer invest in new data centres and hardware, while rationalizing existing infrastructure. In this sense the Smart City Platform provides a city cloud.

An example of the enhanced speed and flexibility brought about can include the plug-and-play enablement of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. A Smart City platform, enhanced with ubiquitous wireless networks, can create a true IoT environment where sensors are automatically detected on the network and their data and management plugged into the platform, with data storage and in-memory analytics processing the considerable volumes of real time data.

Another area of efficiency is the enhanced control that city managers can exercise over systems and sensors around the city. By centralizing control functions into a city control centre, day to day running of the city becomes more efficient and new enhanced capabilities are brought forward, such as proactive management. This function adds agility to city governments, to the benefits of their stakeholders.

Interoperability — further efficiency gains for the city can be achieved through making diverse systems work together. Most cities have a myriad of systems today, from road tolls to licence registration to planning to financial management and beyond. The Smart City Platform empowers cross system or entity workflows and data exchange through the use of controlled data stores, APIs and guaranteed messaging.

Data governance — as more of a city’s interactions become dependent on digital systems, data governance is a crucial topic. The Smart City Platform is the physical implementation of data laws and guidelines and the enabler for sharing data between government entities and onwards to the private sector, safely and with legally backed oversight. It also empowers Open Data initiatives.

Entrepreneurship — the Smart City Platform is a technology incubation platform for encouraging startups and to help deliver services for the city through crowdsourcing. The concept is that a city has problems to solve that can be offered to the market by exposing data and technology infrastructure or tools that would enable any size of private entity to respond, down to the individual entrepreneur or developer.

Transparency — through the sharing of data and interoperability of systems, cities gain efficiency and the ability to bring about new services for residents, visitors and companies. Transparency is achieved through data dashboards, as well as the release of catalogues of data and new applications that reduce barriers for people and create new opportunities. Through greater and faster visibility to city data, stakeholders can achieve more, faster. This is especially true where real time data is used to give more timely transparency, such as in the case of emergency or event management.

Prediction of needs
— having amassed a wide variety of data sets, which can now be stored for much longer than before due to big data technologies, cities are in the position to more accurately predict their resident’s needs and provide services even before the residents know they need them. This takes a massive amount of data to achieve so requires substantial platform capabilities, data science expertise, the appropriate governance and robust security.

Unintended uses of data
— once a city has armed itself with the capability to amass data, unintended uses of this data will arise through the combination of data sets that were not previously intended to combine. Examples of this include the use of company registration data to predict CO2 creation and determining traffic impacts from event registration data.

Pit falls

All these benefits do not, however, come without some associated risks that need to be managed carefully. These include potential security and budgetary issues.

Security — In effect a smart city platform becomes a honey pot for malfeasants as the multiple systems they had to hack before are now wrapped up into one. This is why security has to be a key concern at every layer of the platform, while empowering the open use of data.

Budgetary issues — Legacy thinking can result in a new platform built on old principles that does very little to improve city resident’s lives and consumes large budgets. A root and branch approach needs to be taken to adopt modern methodologies as well as systems.

Ultimately the importance of a Smart City platform lies in the benefits that it can bring to residents, visitors and companies within a city. By making current services more efficient and enabling new outcomes, the Smart City Platform becomes the central lever of execution for city government.

Yousef Khalili, is Senior Partner & Head of UAE Public Sector, neXgen and Andrew Rippon, is Senior Consultant, neXgen.

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