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Tim Kannegieter

Just what IS a smart city?

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I’ve always been a bit confused about what a smart city actually is. When you talk to people in the field, you normally get vague answers about how the Internet of Things is going to transform cities. The basic idea is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness in the way we manage our community assets and services. Using the Internet of Things (IoT) we collect more data and analyze it to make smarter operational and strategic decisions. When pressed for examples, smart city enthusiasts usually point to specific point solutions around parking, water meters, energy monitoring, garbage bins and the like. But individually none of these make an entire city smart, right?

5ab99d527b0da_Buildings50.thumb.jpg.411f9a3d4077e96e980bc606fc6cf7ea.jpgFor a while, I thought that smart cities must have something to do with interconnecting this large variety of point solutions, to get synergistic benefits through the likes of big data analytics and machine learning. However, the engineer in me knows just how complex such an approach is. It’s a great aspiration, and I’m all for it, but we are a long, long way from that.

So it was refreshing to talk to Thinxtra’s VP Ecosystems & Marketing Renald Gallis about their Smart Council Program which recently gained a $10 million boost in funding from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help roll out the Sigfox low power wide area network technology to councils across Australia. He confirmed for me that most smart cities are currently limited to point solutions. Thinxtra has partnered with a number of organisations to help them offer a variety of solutions for everything from manhole monitoring to prevent overflow, through to rodent infestation control.

What I gained from that conversation is a realization that smart cities ARE about interconnectedness – but it’s more to do with people than technology. According to Renald, the key to smart cities and any other industry vertical, is the quality of the business relationships that sit behind the IoT solutions.

When Thinxtra evaluates potential companies to bring their solutions into the Sigfox network, they look first to access the maturity of their thinking about IoT. It’s not enough to have a smart technology solution, it must also be at a price point that makes it viable and it must also be scalable.

The company delivering the IoT solution must understand not just the technologies but the organisational systems required to sustain them in the field. It’s one thing to produce a few hundred devices. It’s another to produce tens of thousands devices and support them nationally or globally. Having confidence in the solution is a key part of what Renald calls "proof of value" which goes beyond a simple business case. He will be delivering a webinar on proof of value to this community on 3 April. 

Renald says there are a lot of “digital tourists” – individuals or companies that have an idea and dabble in the IoT space. However, they don’t really know what they want or fully understand the complex landscape of IoT solution providers. They ending up wasting a lot of time for everyone involved.

So what makes a smart city is smart relationships between organisations that really “get” IoT.

Smart relationships start with the quality of the organisations involved. Providers need to have all the backend processes to support the systems in the field. This will include partnering with reliable providers of connectivity, middleware and cloud systems. Because the ability to scale is important, the provider in the relationship should ideally be a big player in the market – nationally or globally. According to Gallis, start-ups need to be realistic about their ability to take market share and align themselves to the right global player as quickly as possible in the evolution5ab99ca6e792b_IoTrelationships.JPG.9be13d5900c7e0eb975c6bb1beeaaa27.JPG of their product.

Adopters of IoT solutions also need to have the right organisational systems in place to strategically address the way IoT will positively disrupt their business models and processes. Ideally, they will have an innovation department of some sort in place to both assess the technology and to shepherd solutions through to implementation.

Smart relationships also relate to how city authorises encourage multiple point solutions to work together. Generally speaking the point solutions will be using the same kinds of technologies. Ideally, these technologies would be from the same providers, using the same platforms. However, in a competitive world, this is wishful thinking, especially for large cities. At this stage concepts like open data and an IoT friendly regulatory environment come into play and city authorities do need to play their role in facilitating smart relationship.

So what IS a smart city? I’m thinking it is a vibrant ecosystem of technology providers and adopters across the city, working together to improve macro outcomes like livability, prosperity and sustainability. IoT sits at the heart of that, connecting technologies and organisations. It plays a role in brokering relationships between people from all fields and disciplines to work together in smart ways. As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message” and today IoT is the medium.

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Dr Tim Kannegieter is the facilitator of Engineers Australia Applied IoT Engineering Community

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